Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12 in D minor, Op. 112 was received rather coolly on its premiere in 1961, by the public and critics alike. It may have been highly acclaimed in official circles, but to many ‘The Year 1917’, as it was dubbed, in exalting Lenin was ‘nothing more than an official act of opportunistic piety to the icons of the Revolution’. It did not help that musically this was deemed to be one of Shostakovich’s most orthodox symphonies, containing none of the texts that the composer had previously suggested would be included in a symphony about the first leader of the Soviet Union.
In this very balanced and detailed performance by the Oslo Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko, it was easy to engage with the piece’s strict musical credentials and to worry less about its connotations. In this way, the Allegro of the first movement (entitled ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’) felt quite thrilling as the entire orchestra played its part in building up the power and tension to overwhelming levels. In the second movement, ‘Razliv’ (the village where Lenin went into hiding for a period before the October Revolution), it became easy to spot the similarities with the music that Mussorgsky gave to the chronicler Pimen in Boris Godunov.
The third and fourth movements were exceptionally well paced as they worked from the short third movement, ‘Aurora’, which signifies the start of the October Revolution, to the finale, ‘The Dawn of Humanity’, which projects the optimism of a supposedly new golden age. A shot was fired from the cruiser Aurora to signal the start of the Bolshevik assault on the Winter Palace, and the orchestra managed the transition from portraying anticipation in the third movement’s pizzicato strings and suppressed rhythms to providing an increasingly powerful assault on the senses in the finale extremely well. Nevertheless, the performance still benefited from making us appreciate the transition and build-up in strict musical terms. Thus, by revealing the piece’s technical merits to the full, it rendered redundant at least a proportion of the criticisms that have been levied against the work at one time or another.
The evening began with a performance of The Firebird in the second of the three concert suite versions that Stravinsky created in 1919. This was a notably textured performance as the flutes, clarinets, oboes and bassoons all executed their various lines with immense delicacy and tenderness. At the other end of the spectrum the brass created a rich and powerful sound, but between these two ‘extremes’ were a variety of other shades as every phrase carried exactly the right tone and colouring.
Leif Ove Andsnes was the soloist for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, Op. 40. Traditionally viewed as a lesser work than his Second and Third Concertos, as its senses of insecurity and vacillation have been held against it, Andsnes made a compelling case for it as the clarity he brought to his sound in itself gave it a slightly mystical or spiritual air. By the soloist revealing them so skilfully, the features that have often been held against the concerto, such as its unorthodox proportions and lack of development along conventional lines, became the exact same reasons why it should rightfully be acclaimed. Andsnes’ encore was a beautiful performance of Sibelius’ Romance, Opus 24, No. 9, while the Oslo Philharmonic provided a direct contrast to the Shostakovich that they had just performed by playing the orchestral arrangement of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise at the end of the evening.