BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich 5

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Helen Wallace reports from a powerfully restrained performance of Shostakovich's fifth. Plus - the UK premiere of Salonen's violin concerto

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BBC Symphony Orchestra perform Shostakovich 5

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is the preserve of sizzling elite youth orchestras these days, so what’s a conductor to do with a regular radio orchestra on a wet Wednesday? Oramo had the answer: put it under the microscope and show us how small and quiet and terrified it really is.

Shostakovich’s comment that the blazing ending is forced, 'as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying “Your business is rejoicing”' is well-known. Yet how many times does it provoke instantaneous, cheering applause? Rare it is that an audience is left mute, aghast, by the final chords. Oramo achieved a true sense of enforcement in a performance of masterfully restrained power.

Contrasts were starkly drawn: after an opening of martial splendour, it was as if he suddenly cut out the oxygen. The string sound died; successive episodes crept forward on reluctant, spectral feet, the lack of forward momentum creating a sense of floating vulnerability. While the Scherzo sprang into vigorous life, in the slow movement once again Oramo brought the orchestra to the point of silence, violin lines edging fearfully into existence beneath poignant oboe solos. Only in the finale did one feel the music surge forward, at last off the leash, zesty trombones relishing a momentary freedom, before the baleful command to rejoice cast its shadow.

One has only to look at the programming to see the impact of Sakari Oramo’s creative vision on the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A clever coupling of Sibelius and Salonen revealed a shared use of sustained motoric rhythms. The dark realm of Pohjola’s Daughter found voice in Susan Monks’s ravishing cello solos, launching waves of dancing pulses, here seething with light and energy. Oramo shaped this masterpiece with expert control, its gradual groundswell building unhurriedly to resplendent heights. The ending, where high violins are answered, after a pause, from the sinister depths of the lower strings, was unusually chilling.

Another strange but mesmerising ending completes Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto (2009), here receiving a belated UK premiere. Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz has become a potent muse for a host of living composers, from Colin Matthews and John Adams to Salonen himself, and it’s not hard to see why: with a compelling stage presence, she mixes down-to-earth gutsiness and feline grace with a good dose of attitude ­– who else would wear candy pink platform shoes beneath a sober concert gown?

Salonen has found some radical solutions to balancing violin with orchestra: the opening features glinting marimba, harp and solo violin; a high-velocity dance is driven by crotales and drum-kit, and, in the finale, the soloist strings chains of chords over a heady mix of gongs and muted brass. The structure, too, is innovative, opening with a fast movement that ratchets up into a frenzy of fiddling, which is becalmed on open strings and harmonics. There follows a manic ‘synthetic disco-style’ section, driven by the soloist’s obsessive ricochet bowing. Hendrix-style grandstanding complete with dragged glissandi chords found Josefowicz in her element. Only in the finale Adieu (Salonen’s farewell to Los Angeles) do we hear the suggestion of a melody, in a beguiling meditation shining with bowed marimba. It’s a tour de force, of sorts, and Josefowicz an exceptional advocate, but there’s a fundamental lack of distinctive material which prevents it from taking wing.