This superb concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen paired two contrasted Shostakovich works from the 1930s, the European premiere of the recently unearthed Prologue to Orango and the powerfully intense Fourth Symphony.
Conceived as the Bolshoi Theatre’s contribution to the 15th anniversary celebrations of the 1917 October Revolution, Orango was to be a satirical opera in three acts preceded by a prologue. The writers Alexei Tolstoy and Alexander Starchakov were commissioned to write the libretto and Shostakovich, then at work on Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, was asked to write the music. The composer got as far as setting the text of the prologue to music in the form of a piano sketch before the project was abandoned. The manuscript was filed away and forgotten, eventually being rediscovered in a Moscow archive in 2004. Shostakovich’s widow, Irina Shostakovich, subsequently asked the composer and scholar Gerard McBurney to orchestrate the work, resulting in a 30 minute operatic segment that was first performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Salonen in December 2011.
Orango is a creature who is half-ape and half-man, formerly an anti-Soviet press baron and now an exhibit in a Moscow circus. The music Shostakovich wrote for the piece finds him at his most extrovert, full of energy, colour and rhythm, with episodes of parody and sentimentality. The style is similar to Shostakovich’s ballet The Bolt (1931), and indeed the composer recycled some music from the earlier work for use in the opera.
This semi-staged presentation by director Irina Brown also featured video projections designed by Louis Price, showing contemporary footage from Soviet Russia and animations relevant to the text. The main role of The Entertainer was sung expertly by the American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (who also performed the part at the Los Angeles premiere). The cast also included Allan Clayton, Elisabeth Meister, Peter Hoare and, in the role of Orango, Richard Angas. Almost as important to the staging was the Philharmonia Chorus, not only signing but waving pennants in choreographed formation. Other than the distracting and unnecessary electronic amplification used for some of the singers, this was a riotously enjoyable performance.
It was followed by a carefully controlled and highly intense account of the Fourth Symphony. The propulsive account of the opening allegro initially suggested this would be a swift performance, but Salonen’s interpretation also allowed the symphony’s more reflective passages to make their effect. If the waltz episodes of the third movement were more serious than usual, the strong sense of symphonic logic Salonen brought to the whole was more than compensation. As so often with Salonen at the helm, the Philharmonia’s playing was both extraordinarily accomplished and viscerally exciting. The control of balance and dynamics during the lead into the symphony’s final climax and subsequent descent into silence was particularly impressive. Such was the concentration achieved during the performance that hardly a cough was heard from the audience, and a full twenty five seconds passed between the conclusion of the music and the first applause.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk.