Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
November 10, 2017

This all-Shostakovich concert featured Vladimir Ashkenazy in his element, conducting a symphony in which he has an impressive pedigree: a 1988 recording with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a 2001 live performance (strangely not released until 2008) with the Philharmonic in Tokyo – both widely praised.

Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 is one of the few 20th-century symphonies to enter the mainstream repertoire to become a fully-fledged “classic”. Its emotional and tonal ambiguity, especially in the final movement, has seen forests consumed in publications “explaining” it. The Fifth Symphony is certainly an expression of expiation after the composer’s sudden fall from grace when Stalin saw his successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and condemned it, although the Symphony’s sycophantic sub-title, A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism, wasn’t Shostakovich’s.

It was good programming for the concert to begin with the Passacaglia from the offending opera, a grim interlude which largely belies the lurid eroticism and cartoonish grand guignol violence which so disturbed Stalin. (He may have killed millions but his heart remained with The Merry Widow). Despite slower tempi than previously, the performance never seemed to drag. The SSO responded magnificently to its former Chief Conductor and the sustained intensity in the opening movement was masterful.

When the Allegro finally arrives, the lower brass sounded as if they were announcing the Day of Judgement. The Scherzostrutted more grotesquely than anything Mahler ever wrote and the Largo was wonderfully withdrawn, with superb contributions from the winds, especially the clarinets. In the final movement, always the most controversial, Ashkenazy didn’t need to milk every last drop of the drama to reveal the hollowness of the final “victory”: You will rejoice, or else!

The middle work, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, featured expatriate Ray Chen, whose staggeringly virtuosic and visceral performance reminded me of Janine Jensen’s rendition of the Sibelius a fortnight ago. This is perhaps the most original violin concerto of the 20th century in every way. The introductory Nocturne, a genre which normally depicts sensuousness and tranquillity, saw Chen make his way vigilantly through a bleak and probably hostile landscape, without sounding at all tentative. He threw himself into the sardonic Scherzo and manic final Burlesque with spectacular élan, but it was in the slow movement, the second Passacaglia of the evening, that his man-versus-violin performance reached an unforgettable incandescence.

The SSO performs Dramatic Shostakovich today at 2pm and on Monday November 13 at 7pm