You can imagine Soviet concertgoers identifying rather strongly with the kaleidoscopic musical allusions whizzing by in Rodion Shchedrin’s first Concerto for Orchestra, certainly more so than 21st-century Western audiences. The music’s acerbic wit and pungent scoring didn’t sound very well served by the concerto’s coy subtitle, ‘Naughty Limericks’ – you couldn’t help feeling, for example, that the stop-start string tune would have been freighted with meaning for a Russian audience – but the LSO and Valery Gergiev delivered its eight-minute, short, sharp shock in fine style. One moment you were right in the world of the brutishly brilliant Bernstein, the next the 20th-century Russian soul at its most sardonic was aurally slapping you round the face. Shchedrin (born 1932) was only 30 when he wrote the piece, and its ebullient virtuosity was given full rein by the LSO’s easy, athletic playing. Shchedrin is one of the LSO’s featured composers this season, and on the evidence of this whirlwind concerto, there is much to discover.
There’s Shchedrin, biting the post-Stalin Soviet bum with his sarcasm; then there’s Richard Strauss at the end of his life, eloquently stranded at the very end of romanticism. The opening of his Duett-Concertino, with its intimate sextet opening immediately linking it with the aching nostalgia of “Capriccio”, pitches clarinet against bassoon with exaggerated, almost comic contrast, like the soundtrack to a silent film, as the music’s back-story (a beautiful princess, clarinet, dances with a bear, bassoon, who turns out to be a handsome prince) is worked out to a tender, if not transcendental conclusion. Andrew Marriner was a most seductive, winsome princess, ardently wooed by Rachel Gough’s prince, binding round each other to ravishing effect, and a powerful reminder, were one needed, of the calibre of the LSO’s solo players.
Mahler 5 would be a much simpler affair without its psychotic scherzo. This baleful, febrile Austro/German anticipation of Ravel’s La valse comprehensively unpicks the grandeur of the opening funeral march, makes the Adagietto even more remote, and subverts the impact of the finale.
Uncharacteristically for the charismatic Gergiev (conducting this work again with the LSO, and he also did it at the Proms only a few weeks ago), the scherzo held back from head-on bipolarity. It was magnificently played, almost exhaustingly full of nuance and response, but Gergiev didn’t quite get the feeling of an imploding dark star. And, paradoxically, his rather formal objectivity suited the first movement extremely well, playing up the music’s accumulative oppressiveness and enervation. The tempo of the Adagietto was unfashionably on the slow side, and this worked against the music’s beautiful but distracted tenderness. Gergiev shaped the finale to a brilliant climax and the LSO was at the top of its form (with sensational horn-playing), but you still knew that this is the most difficult of Mahler's symphonies to bring off.