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Beethoven, Shostakovich: Ingrid Fliter (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Thomas Søndergård (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 13.11.2009 (SRT)

Piano Concerto No. 1
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905

We all have concert-going sins which we hate: the woman unwrapping her sweets, the man in the creaky chair who can’t sit still, the lady who forgot to take her cough mixture. This evening’s concert-spoiling prize went to the man at the front of the stalls who ruined the end of Shostakovich 11 by insisting on being the first to clap. The symphony should (and did) leave the audience stunned into silence, but our over-zealous audience member burst into applause seemingly before the bells had even stopped pealing! An understandably irritated nod from the conductor didn’t clarify the issue and for a good 5 seconds a tiny proportion of the audience was clapping while the rest were left a little puzzled. Only when the orchestra was brought to their feet did the rest of the hall join in the thoroughly well-deserved applause.

This duff ending was nothing to do with the stunning playing of the RSNO, though, who created a thoroughly devastating sound world out of Shostakovich’s great score. The glassy strings of the palace square and the terrifyingly insistent “crowd” motive on the timpani created an amazing atmosphere to the opening and when the big tutti came in the second movement it felt as though the roof was about to be lifted off, the massacre well prepared for by a savage, almost atonal fugato in the strings. The soothing (or was it?) funerary motive of the third movement began the build to the shattering climax, and the vast contrasts, from cacophony to nothingness in seconds, punctuated the texture to tremendous effect. Thomas Søndergård, standing in for an indisposed Yakov Kreizberg and making his RSNO debut, piloted his way through the vast structure with a growing sense of confidence, tentative at the start but in full control by the end. This was a wonderful experience, and whets the appetite for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony later in the season.

Next to this the Beethoven concerto risked becoming a mere filler, but it was extremely well played by the graceful Argentinian Ingrid Fliter. This reading of the concerto was genuinely conversational, a pairing of two different partners: Fliter’s style of pianism was predominantly lyrical and refined, while the orchestra seemed to revel in the extrovert moments. The main theme of the first movement felt especially militaristic, while the tutti sections of the Rondo reminded me of the rollicking peasants in the Pastoral symphony. The Largo worked best, as it was here that the two partners were most in accord, and its daringly slow tempo pointed up the ethereal beauty of the piece. Once the finale had stormed over the finishing line Fliter played an equally graceful account of the “Minute” waltz as an encore. Happily, this time everyone knew exactly when to clap!

Simon Thompson 


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