Svendsen, Sibelius and Shostakovich: Alena Baeva (violin), Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio/Terje Mikkelsen (conductor), Great Hall, Lancaster University, Lancashire, 28.10.2010 (MC)

Svendsen: Carnival in Paris, Op. 9

Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op. 47

Expectations are often raised at the thought of hearing music played by a touring orchestra from the home country of the featured composer: the San Francisco Symphony playing Copland; the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra playing Brahms; the Czech Philharmonic playing Dvořák and so on. This adage might be a good indicator but it doesn’t always hold. It held true in majestic style for the visit of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio conducted by Terje Mikkelsen playing Shostakovich at Lancaster University.

I tend to favour an exuberant score to open a concert programme and it makes a refreshing change to hear something out of the standard repertoire. Johan Svendsen’s Carnival in Paris seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Music by a Norwegian composer conducted by a Norwegian but it proved a disappointment. The concert overture commenced in an untidy fashion but thankfully the playing eventually improved. I remain unconvinced by the quality of Svendsen’s high-spirited score and somehow I felt the orchestra did too.

Now acknowledged as one of the finest works in the repertoire, the SibeliusViolin Concerto is extremely popular both on disc and in concert. Sibelius certainly how to write for the violin. He was a fine player himself who auditioned for the Vienna Philharmonic as a young man. Russian violinist Alena Baeva was quite outstanding, bringing out the darkly brooding passions and icy Scandinavian chill of Sibelius’s score so steeped in romantic fervour. You could have heard a pin-drop during the angst-ridden first movement cadenza, such was the attentiveness of the spell-bound audience.The soloist’s Stradivari has a glorious dark timbre cutting magnificently through the acoustics of the hall with comforting ease. Believing totally in the music, Alena Baeva has that special quality of being able to communicate the music so innately. Assisted by the confident direction of Terje Mikkelsen the support from the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra was first class. Some of the playing from the woodwind and cello section was exceptional.

The main course for the evening’s entertainment was one of the most admired of all twentieth century symphonies. Shostakovich’s magnificent Symphony No.5 in D minor is a score that resurrected his then flagging career; one that was so dependent on the acquiescence of the Soviet state. The composer gave the score the subtitle, ‘A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just criticism’; and what a reply it was.

Playing the music of their fellow countryman, the Russian orchestra under Terje Mikkelsen gave a performance of profundity, vigour and overwhelming emotion that will stay with me for some time. Immediately I was aware of a special electricity in the hall. Right from the opening pages a sense of dark foreboding opens the score. I soon became aware of the orchestra’s wonderfully rich and voluminous sound that comes from below through the deep instruments: the cellos and double basses. Cloaked in nervous energy the brief Scherzo communicated music of a sardonic tongue in cheek quality in the spirit of Mahler. Scored without brass the Largo was interpreted by Mikkelsen with intense introspection and melancholy. The low strings at times created a feeling of being cocooned in pitiful despair. The brass and woodwind arouse from their slumber in the Finale. I was struck by the martial-like passages full of swagger and stirring energy. A relatively peaceful passage comes only as a brief respite. Mikkelsen develops a powerfully driven forward momentum and I felt a shiver run down my spine as the music rushed impetuously to an awesome and near deafening conclusion.

Electing tempi on the brisker side Terje Mikkelsen conducted an immensely compelling and dramatically powerful performance of the Symphony No.5. The Russian strings were irresistibly played especially the glorious timbre of the cello section; as superior as I have ever heard. Generally the brass was focused and bitingly effective however the horns had their moments of unevenness. Out of the earthy toned colours of the woodwind section I feel compelled to single out the remarkable playing of the principal bassoonist, followed by the impeccable clarinet and oboe.

As a curtain raiser to the Lancaster International Concerts season this was hard to beat. Alena Baeva was an outstanding soloist in the Sibelius concerto and Terje Mikkelsen’s Moscow orchestra produced an electrifyingly dramatic and highly memorable account of the Shostakovich.

Michael Cookson