Photo, Chris Christodoulou

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Royal Albert Hall, London

This was a concert and a half, opening with Kalevi Aho’s Eight Seasons (how the Sami people divide a year), a Concerto for theremin (2012), The opening came across as wintery, the theremin might initially be heard as an electronic cello; the orchestral strings are plaintive; woodwinds add decoration as the tempo slightly quickens, and the ethereal if eerie theremin continues on its way. Eight Seasons is an atmospheric and painterly score, with quite a lot of subtle scenic percussion, if lacking distinctive motifs, or enough material to withstand thirty-two minutes, although the colours are varied and the theremin can sustain a vocal line (aided by Carolina Eyck’s own singing, I believe) or produce cartoon-like noises … Eight Seasons being one of those pieces that the ear hangs onto for whatever might happen next, such as a beautiful set of orchestral chords (maybe suggesting water) and it gets a bit stormy around the twenty-three-minute mark, yet when the piece is over it is found to be that a single performance is enough, this one reuniting the soloist and conductor of the premiere, and clearly very well done, and the birdsong (suggesting Spring) was attractive. As an encore, Eyck spoke a few words related to the workings of the theremin and she then improvised a lamenting solo, with a drone supplied by the BBC Philharmonic’s leader Yuri Torchinsky.

Following the interval, a long second half, beginning with a recent opus by Kaija Saariaho, Vista (2019), given its UK premiere in January this year by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu. Like Aho, her fellow-Finn, Saariaho writes suggestively, here severely, and first of all chillingly – a haunted landscape – not an easy journey – and then an increase in speed brings a certain brass-laden tumult, frenzy, as if fleeing a scene, if only leading to further uncertainty. (That’s my take anyway.) A twenty-five-minute piece to hear again.

Shostakovich’s Fifteenth and final Symphony, one of his greatest achievements, is for a lifetime, endlessly fascinating – it was clear from a soon-aired recording of the Moscow premiere, the composer’s son Maxim conducting, that here was an extraordinary and riddling work – everything you need to know about Shostakovich therein. It’s a disturbing creation, sinisterly witty – with enigmatic quotations from Rossini, Glinka and Wagner, and Shostakovich himself (Symphony 4, the one that was gagged for twenty-five years) – a nightmarish pithy first movement with the William Tell overture as droll interloper, which John Storgårds judged ideally, played with panache, and then a bleak funereal movement with cello (Peter Dixon) and trombone solos (both finely taken), and a baleful climax, Storgårds uncompromising in his spacious tempo and climactic impact (following which there were unexpected bells in the listening area – someone’s mobile?), linked to the sardonic third movement, delivered pungently. Storgårds also took a measured approach to the Finale (akin to Kurt Sanderling) – bittersweet, isolated, Götterdämmerung in the mix – leading to one of the most-painful of onslaughts – before the composer’s own twilight sets in, the disturbing sound of kitchen utensils as heard from a hospital bed, a single chime being the concluding sound.

This ambitious concert, thoroughly well-prepared, with first-class broadcast sound (Stephen Rinker no doubt), was carried off with conviction and skill. I wonder if the Shostakovich will appear on Chandos? No.11 already there.