The final victorious movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony - shining, joyful, yet underscored with ominous clashes and dissonance - left the audience rapturous.
A powerful interpretation
Maxim Shostakovich's version of his father's great Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra on Saturday at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, showed the audience exactly how relevant to modern life the classical canon remains. Though the work was composed in Soviet Russia in 1937, heard today it is almost impossible to separate the sentiments of the music - militaristic horror, hopes dashed, despair, mindless jingoism - from current atrocities, whether in Gaza, Zimbabwe or Darfur.
Composed after suffering a period of extreme disfavour with the Soviet authorities, who at the time were beginning to perpetrate the horrors of Stalin's Great Terror, the piece had members of the audience weeping at its premiere in 1937. The harsh irony and desolation of the work, especially in the tragic Largo and the monstrously upbeat final movement, were apparently evident to the public, even if Shostakovich had carefully hidden them beneath a martial vigour that made the work palatable to the Politburo. Its power is no less evident to a modern audience.
What made this dark work all the more haunting at Saturday's concert was that the audience had come fresh from an uplifting, jaunty performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, in the first half. The incredibly young Sergey Khachatryan is, at 23, a formidable talent, with a mastery of bowing, precision of fingering and perfection of pitch that astounds the listener. The silvery tone of his 1708 Stradivarius perfectly suits his agile style, while still giving him the tonal depth needed for sawing out the folky dance melodies of the second movement.
Those ethereal, delicate harmonics of the cadenza in the first movement, the deftly managed double-stopping that looked oh-so easy in his hands and the sweet, wistful tone in the slower passages were all charmingly achieved. If there must be any criticism made of this lovely performance, it is only that the emotive depths of the work were not reached with such raw, gritty passion as the joyous heights, though that is undoubtedly something that will come to his performances with maturity.
It was, then, in a chirpy and excited mood that the audience filed back into the auditorium for the evening's main attraction. It took only the jerky, angular first chords of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, with their dark, angry sparsity, to create a thickly menacing atmosphere in the theatre. The conductor, a calm, almost reticent figure during the Tchaikovsky, was transformed: animated, energetic and aggressive, as the first tense leitmotif embedded itself in the body of the work, re-emerging throughout the first movement. This was the Maxim Shostakovich that we had come to see, a man leashed irrevocably to the powerful works of his father; the most authentic interpreter possible of the composer's purpose.
After that powerful opening, and the subsequent return to an eerie, glassy calm in the orchestra, it was easier to understand the conductor's earlier restraint: he is apparently not a man given to the physical antics of some of his peers, who have been known to express the score in a sort of dance with the orchestra. For Shostakovich, the hard work is done in rehearsal and, in the concert, he seems for the most part content with unobtrusively beating time and bringing in the musicians with a shrug of the shoulders or a flick of the baton. He was, then, all the more convincing when he did bring emotion to bear on the work - as in a heart-wrenching climax in the Largo, which he signalled with a massive arm gesture and his involuntary guttural grunt.
The Philharmonia Orchestra responded superbly to his direction, playing with a subtlety and unsentimental hardness that worked well with this brittle opus - in strong contrast with the mellower, richer sounds that they achieved in the Tchaikovsky. Where the violins were called upon to shrilly, relentlessly bow the same note again and again in the final movement, they did so with Soviet-style regularity, vividly calling to mind the desperate, terrified, enforced cheerfulness of the Russian population during the late 1930s, as they tried to avoid the Gulag. When presented with a triumphant march, the percussion valiantly reinforced the dystopian cacophony written for the rest of the orchestra. The final victorious movement, shining, joyful, yet underscored with ominous clashes and dissonance, left the audience rapturous, offering the second standing ovation of the evening as Shostakovich and his orchestra took their bows.