Of Shostakovich’s fifteen Symphonies it’s the Fifth that is played the most, relentlessly, and it was just a few months ago when Yuri Temirkanov conducted it at this address as part of a not dissimilar programme (link below). Now culturally exchanging the St Petersburg Philharmonic for the Philharmonia Orchestra, Temirkanov led an account of ‘Shos 5’ that might be considered neutral in terms of its circumstances – “a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism” – for he fashioned a reading that concentrated on symphonic length and line – 1937 was then – and for all the power and emotional intensity unleashed, including some Temirkanov particulars in this work, such as the domination of timpani and side drum as the first movement approaches its zenith, this was not a Stalin showstopper, although a little more biography behind the notes was sometimes needed. Sarcasm and parody were more apparent (Scherzo) without being overt, and the whole had been launched with ideal unanimity and biting strings; we were ‘there’ from the first bar. Temirkanov also ensured a seamless approach to the numerous moods of the slow movement, a natural sweep from chill to pained passion to inwardness. As for the Finale, Temirkanov launched it at quite a lick and the accelerando aspect of the opening bars was subtly delineated (it can sometimes be ill-timed and jagged). As for the robotic coda – “your business is rejoicing” – Temirkanov left it that we will hear whatever suits, whether towing the Party line or debunking the system. The Philharmonia was in great form, while solos of distinction included Alex Hamilton (horn), Samuel Coles (flute), Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Duncan Riddell (violin).
When the Philharmonia returns to ‘Shos 5’ in the RFH, November 23, it will once again have Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto parked alongside it, another work impossible to have a Brief Encounter with. On this occasion Denis Kozhukhin was in terrific shape, confirming his place as one the very finest pianists of his generation (he’s about thirty now), a flawless technique serving the music’s direction, ebb and flow, strength and delicacy, all cohesively bonded without exaggeration and backed to the hilt by the Philharmonia. After such a freshly-painted account, full of character, discretion, rapture and electricity, an encore from Kozhukhin was welcome, a sensitive and spacious reading of the first of Brahms’s Opus 117 Piano Pieces, which some in the (virtually full) audience did their best to sabotage through very rude coughing and other noises, but Kozhukhin’s rapt delivery of this haunting music defied the intruders, a tribute to his focus and wonderfully lyrical communication.
The last time (November 2014/St Petersburg) Kikimora reached the RFH it was conducted by... it’s a piece (1909) that Temirkanov does with total identification, music that describes a wizard’s child who is told exotic stories by a cat as she grows to become a witch. Russian fantasy at its best with a score to match, brilliantly orchestrated, from mysterious depths with a sinister ingredient via cor anglais folksong to a dazzling conclusion and a witty end. Contemporary with Stravinsky writing music for The Firebird, Kikimora leaves in no doubt that Liadov, Diaghilev’s first choice as Firebird’s composer, would have written something commensurate but for the scale needed and his own indolence.
The Philharmonia offers a variety of free pre-concert recitals. This one, preceded by some stilted chat between the main protagonists that added little to the programme notes, was the final leg of the laudable Music of Today series for this season (returns October 5, Michael Daugherty) and featured upcoming composers in pieces roughly ten minutes long (The Hunter’s Funeral being the longest). One criticism of each score might be that, despite the relative brevity, they came across as being a little too long and not developing enough.
No doubting the excellence of these first-performances under Patrick Bailey, however, and the three pieces do have engaging features, similarly scored: string quartet, double bass, flute/alto flute/piccolo, clarinet, harp, piano and percussion. In Reflections (after Gibbons), Gareth Moorcraft (born 1990) looks back to viol pieces by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) and, following an opening that suggested early Aaron Copland, Moorcraft conjures impressionism, expressive shadows and mechanics, with the piano contributing something darker and dissonant. Lisa Illean (born 1983) adds a horn and a trumpet for Januaries, a slowly-evolving study (reminding of Morton Feldman) of microtones and creating an undergrowth of sound, deeply considered texture and subtly accumulating tension. In The Hunter’s Funeral, Donghoon Shin (also born 1983) responds, with a second trumpet, to a woodcut by Moritz von Schwind, including depicting animals as pallbearers. Stand by for another American suggestion, this time John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, particularly in the rapid first half, perking-up the ears and requiring much virtuosity from all, not least Catherine Ring on percussion. The reflective funeral march, becoming slower over its duration, a lament, doesn’t though sustain enough interest. But, good to hear recent music from talented creators.