What a journey we took here from the muted half-lights of Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique to the tumultuous bell-laden prophecy at the close of Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony. Vasily Petrenko was at the helm of the London Philharmonic taking time out from his Scousers to probe and reveal with his customary precision a repertoire that is so plainly at the very heart of his being.
Stravinsky’s Scherzo is essentially a dress rehearsal for the Firebird’s entrance with every section of the richly adorned but discreetly muted orchestra whirring to the perpetual motion of as yet only imagined choreography. Three harps pick out the iridescence of the Firebird’s plumage, the scoring so light as to point up the elusiveness of it all. A perfect morsel of Stravinskian ephemera, deftly attended.
But stranger imaginings were stirring in the quasi-Spanish, castanet clicking, danse macabre which pops up as the second subject of Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto. The joy of this piece lies in the precarious tension between its brittle toccata-like elements and a ravishing laid-back lyricism and that was something Oleg Marshev took in his stride, the sound full and beautiful, eerily so in that moment at the start of the second movement where the hands go as far as they can in opposite directions. A little more hard-edged brilliance might have served the devilish nature of the piece better and I can see why Marshev was quick to offer an encore – Liszt’s Transcendental Study No.10 – where he could take the lid off his sound and temperament.
But the five-star turn came with Petrenko and the LPO bravely essaying, with lethal precision, the piece that I still believe might be Shostakovich’s greatest symphony – No.11 “The Year 1905”. Its revolutionary songs carry so much emotional memory that even “outsiders” like myself feel humbled by them. The big graphic moments seemed more hair-raising than ever: only Shostakovich could have deployed music’s most formal device, a fugue, to re-enact a massacre of such remorseless brutality. The advancing percussion battery crushed all before it, trumpet crescendos strafed the texture. One’s heart leapt with the major key transformation of the slow movement then quietly mourned with the great cor anglais solo (Sue Bohling) of the finale. The ambivalent major/minor oscillation of the bells failed to come through at the close – but otherwise, overwhelming.