Shostakovich’s oeuvre is so full of encryption that, for as long as it is performed, audiences will ask what he meant – without discovering the answer. That is only part of the music’s fascination, but the question looms most urgently in his last symphony, No 15, which the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and its principal conductor, Vasily Petrenko, brought to Southbank Centre’s The Rest Is Noise series. The fact that the orchestra played with such finesse and conviction, incorporating fabulously idiomatic obbligato contributions from section principals, made Shostakovich’s box of tricks all the more intriguing. Why the mask of humour and a ticking clock? Why the quotations from Rossini and Wagner?
Not all great composers’ music is great, and Shostakovich does not escape the routine and the banal in his puzzling symphonic finale. But by breathing as one, and generating an almost tangible tension in the two slow movements, the RLPO made the very best case for this uneven work.
It was a concert in which a programmer’s design played a bigger role than musical sense. The RLPO comes all too rarely to London, and it really deserved a more meaty first half than the two works it was assigned to fulfil the 1970s theme – a Berio arrangement of Boccherini and the Death in Venice suite culled by Steuart Bedford from Britten’s opera. Stuck at the beginning like an encore that had strayed, Berio’s festive Quattro Versioni Originali “Ritirata notturna di Madrid” – the title is almost longer than the music – came from a different planet to the rest of the programme.
As for the Britten: well, if Shostakovich’s symphony sounded like a composer looking back sardonically on life and forward to the grave, the sad, limp, not-fully-realised fragments of Death in Venice conjured visions of a composer whose heart had already stopped beating. The suite does Britten a disservice. Shorn of stage action and singing, it sounds like a strip of cast-off film music, its feeble material spun out too long – an impression mitigated by the RLPO’s ultra-sensitive treatment. Phaedra, a much stronger Britten work of the 1970s, would have made a pithier centrepiece.