Saturday, September 30, 2023

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

The short first half found Alexandre Kantorow playing Liszt’s continuous/organic A-major Piano Concerto, opening with beguiling woodwinds and a delicate response from the pianist, a reflective atmosphere conjured, followed – storm cones hoisted – by greater drama, Kantorow fully virtuosic without sacrificing musicianship. The succeeding lyrical episode featured lovely cello contributions and further examples of expressive winds (especially from oboist Jonathan Kelly) before the final section, via a return to dreaminess, marched gloriously and then sprinted to triumph, the Berliners and Tugan Sokhiev in perfect step with the charismatic and glittering soloist. For his first encore Kantorow remained faithful to Guido Agosti’s transcription of the grand ending of Stravinsky’s Firebird (which doesn’t stand up to repetition) and then a rather wonderful gently musing piece, surely by Liszt or maybe one of his Schubert song arrangements.

The thirty-year-old Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony was due its premiere in 1936, Leningrad, but having already been denounced by Stalin for his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the decision was made during rehearsals to withdraw the Symphony, the claim made that it was the composer’s choice, the work not coming to public light until 1961, Kirill Kondrashin conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. Using a huge orchestra, Shostakovich Four is immediately arresting (a xylophone suggesting skeletons emerging from graves) and remains so throughout its (here) seventy-minute duration – full-on powerful, conflicted, sarcastic, enigmatic, cacophonous, eerie – Sokhiev uncompromisingly broad in approach to really emphasise the music’s stamping force, strange beauty, sudden contrasts (juggernaut tuttis and haunted/mystifying solos) and such as the wild fugue (deranged from Sokhiev) that erupts during the first movement if not proving to be an escape from incarceration (of the mind). Similar ingredients inform the remaining two movements, introducing new material, firstly something intermezzo-like that grows in intensity and featuring percussion writing that will reappear in Symphony Fifteen, and secondly a dark/disturbing funeral march, Sokhiev once again measured – implacable Grim Reaper tread – until the music flares up spikily if with some suggestion of jubilation, however short-lived, for whimsy returns (fairground trombone solo) and the work’s biggest climax, utterly tragic, is soon blistering our senses relentlessly (underpinned by two sets of persistent timpani), the celesta-adorned coda fading to nothing, the corpse floating face-down to oblivion, so suggested this remarkable performance of remarkable music.