There seems to be a trend these days, to open a concert with a short contemporary piece. Perhaps this is to wake up the establishment’s ears, or to put off the challenge of programming a much more substantial work; after all, within these isles alone, we possess a vast canon of great works, from Casken, Birtwistle, Adès and so on.
Tonight’s first half is all about the cello. The opener is a work for two cellists by the Italian Giovanni Sollima, called Violoncelles, vibrez! It features both the composer and RSNO principal cellist Aleksei Kiseliov. It is interesting music, with much extended technique and virtuosic display. The vibrating is as much about the human soul as the music.
Kiseliov returns to perform Dvorák’s cello concerto, a repertoire favourite that has been absent from programmes of late, so it is good to hear it again. It is extremely taxing for the cellist, with much use of the cello’s upper register.
The first movement contains one of Dvorák’s most memorable melodies, which is tossed around cello and orchestra in an often bittersweet fashion. He had left Bohemia to teach in America, so it is surely a fond memory of his homeland. The slow movement has powerful personal memories and is an elegy for a family friend.
The finale is exuberant by contrast and shows Dvořák’s recollection of defiant Czech spirit, with the cello firmly to the fore. Kiseliov is a worthy soloist, with technique to burn, but was too safe. A soloist of more international standing may have given the music more edge and passion.
Continuing its theme of all things Russian, the RSNO then perform Shostakovich’s popular fifth symphony. It came as a result of Stalin’s rebuke of the modernism and the muddle of the composer’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which whilst generally popular, was considered primitive and vulgar. Shostakovich’s modernist fourth symphony was sidelined in favour of the fifth, which is more traditionalist, its musical ideas thus toeing the party line.
And yet the music seems to project the composer’s reply to ‘just criticism’. The famous opening theme pervades the first movement in a myriad of ways, from a kind of ‘wrong note’ music, to military marches. The quasi Mahlerian scherzo is followed by a slow movement, which is both lush in its orchestration and harrowing: the icy cold ending is proof of the political environment of the time.
But worry not: this is a work of darkness to light, and the final movement transports the listener to a glorious ending, although there is still a sense of oppression, even with brass and percussion in full force. There is good playing from the RSNO, although a Russian conductor may have brought out more from this seminal work.