RSNO/Søndergård Ingrid Fliter – Beethoven & Shostakovich

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Ingrid Fliter (piano)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Thomas Søndergård

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 November, 2009
Venue: Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Being Friday the 13th it was perhaps to be expected that misfortune should strike this concert; in this case the late cancellation of Yakov Kreizberg due to recent surgery. However one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity and every cloud has a silver lining! in this case the chance to chance to catch-up with the Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård, recently appointed Principal Conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, making his debut with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in an exceptionally thought-provoking account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11.

Ingrid Fliter. ©Sussie AhlburgIngrid Fliter, the Argentinean soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, is another thought-provoking artist. Already in her mid-thirties (she won Silver Medal at the 2000 Chopin Competition in Warsaw), Fliter’s name has taken some time before seeping into the wider public consciousness. This account of the Beethoven, whilst not the last word, was nonetheless a fine antidote to those rather po-faced readings which fail to grasp that rather than being a precursor to the final three concertos, the work has a distinctively puckish humour all its own.

Whilst never over-stepping the conventions of classical style, Fliter brought a deliciously zany sense of playfulness to the finale (in the manner of Friedrich Gulda) which had us hanging on every note as she toyed with the main theme, keeping it perpetually airborne. Elsewhere she made much of the becalmed episode at the heart of the first movement and the central Largo had a cantabile quality reminiscent of the best bel canto. Technically secure enough to indulge the occasional flight of fantasy, as with her compatriot Martha Argerich, there is frequently a sense of unpredictability, of living at the edge, Fliter must be difficult to accompany and there were undoubtedly a few minor lapses of synchronisation. However, these were far outweighed by the sheer relish and élan which she and the orchestra brought to the work. As an encore Fliter played Chopin’s ‘Minute’ Waltz with delicious whimsy.

Thomas Søndergård. ©Ole KalandShostakovich’s Symphony No.11 marks the 40th-anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 but is based on the events of earlier events of 1905 when, confronted with a peaceful demonstration in Palace Square, the Tsarist authorities lost their nerve and opened fire, leaving 200 demonstrators dead and 500 injured. Many historians see these events as pivotal in leading up to the later Revolution. By comparison with the Fifth and Tenth symphonies ‘The Year 1905’ has often been regarded as one of Shostakovich’s lesser symphonic achievements.

Part of the problem may lie with the work’s programmatic structure. An extended slow first movement evokes the stillness of the Palace Square before the event followed by a second depicting the seething, scurrying fury of the masses culminating in the abruptness of the massacre itself; the symphony’s second half (‘In Memoriam’), an extended threnody for the victims, is followed by ‘The Tocsin’, which in its way is as protractedly violent as the wilder reaches of the Fourth Symphony. The four movements are played without a break. This is not an easy design to bring off but in the right hands it can work most effectively.

Søndergård had the work’s measure. Leaving aside for a moment the sheer attack of the RSNO’s string-playing in ‘The Tocsin’ and some fabulous solos – notably a quite breathtaking cor anglais solo in the finale from Zoe Kitson – the most distinctive aspect of Søndergård’s conducting was his ability to hold something in reserve for the work’s significant moments whilst at the same time appearing to hold nothing back. This is music all too easy to opt for overkill and suffer the law of diminishing returns, but Søndergård had the clearest of visions as to how to build towards the work’s twin peaks and the patience to implement it. He also succeeded in obtaining an impressive depth of string sound throughout, aided by the fact that the RSNO has now developed something of a Shostakovich tradition, the composer’s music having formed a regular part of the orchestra’s fare since the days of Walter Susskind, Neeme Järvi and Alexander Lazarev. Søndergård’s was a most impressive debut.

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