The penultimate concert in the Sunday Classics series at the Usher Hall (May 27) was an all Russian affair, delivered with controlled passion by the polished Dresden Philharmonic under Berliner Michael Sanderling.
Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony might not have received the 45-minute ovation that greeted its first performance in 1937, but the deft Dresdeners gave a committed account of this most political of works. It is hard, in an Edinburgh matinee, to conjure the atmosphere of apprehension in the dark days of Stalin’s Terror, but something of Shostakovich’s tortured soul emerged in the tension created by the fine strings and haunting playing of the wind.
The lightness at the end of the Largo, with tremolos so ethereal they might have been imagined, gave space to reflect on Shostakovich’s turmoil as he tried to recover from Communist Party condemnation, resurrect his reputation, and save his life. The subsequent forced rejoicing of the finale was ‘created under threat’, as the composer reportedly said, and Sanderling ensured his musicians captured the triumph of musical genius over oppression.
The concert began with Tchaikovsky’s dazzling Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, which local opera lovers might have heard the night before in Scottish Opera’s current production. But perhaps the highlight on Sunday was the soloist, German virtuoso Arabella Steinbacher, who joyfully toyed with Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto.
The depth and strength of her tone, achieved with flawless bowing technique, and the sweetness of her phrasing almost stole the show from the orchestra. But they kept up and as Steinbacher accelerated the pace in the galloping final bars, one wondered if it could get any more exciting than this. It did!
Catch Maxim Vengerov – playing Bruch in the first half and conducting Shostakovich Symphony No 10 in the second – in the last Sunday Classics concert, this Sunday, June 3, before the season returns in October.
The new programme, announced on Sunday, includes the St Petersburg Philharmonic with pianist Freddy Kempf, the Russian State Orchestra with Barry Douglas, Angela Hewitt playing Beethoven with the Vienna Tonkunstler, Pinchas Zukerman, John Lill – and Scotland’s own band, the RSNO, giving us Holst’s planets against a backdrop of NASA images of the solar system.
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