Review – Philharmonia plays Shostakovich Violin 2 and Strauss at Royal Festival Hall


Sibelius Andante festivo
Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2
Strauss Death and Transfiguration
Strauss Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Philharmonia Orchestra
Santtu-Matias Rouvali conductor 
Royal Festival Hall Sunday 4 February 2024

This was my first concert in London after ten days of luxurious US sounds in New York and LA. The Philharmonia created a much leaner sound in comparison and the physical space felt a whole lot more intimate. That I was sat in a box overlooking the stage makes the idea that it felt like we were all crammed in a small space hardly surprising. But, that comparative sense of intimacy made every sound a whole lot more urgent.  

On the programme, Sibelius’ Andanta Festivo – an all encompassing warm musical blanket with some luscious string sounds and delectably dramatic diminuendos at the ends of phrases. That this was effectively the overture in the concert made the orchestra’s responsiveness so early on an absolute delight. I was, frankly, amazed.  

Shostakovich’s second violin concerto written in the last months of his life was a considerably more introspective affair compared to his earlier more concise works. The bleak unrelenting first movement has moments when the material (or its treatment) feels a little unwieldly. The slow second movement (described by my concert companion and Shostakovich first-timer as ‘whiny’) was where the real magic occureed, soloist Vadim Gluzman conjuring up the image of someone in the final throes of their life as brimming with gratitude. The solo from oboist Fergal McCready in the opening bars was exquisite, prompting my companion to turn her head and drop her jaw in appreciation.  

The second half saw a binge-fest of Richard Strauss’ finest heart-tugging works. Tod und Verklärung in the hands of conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali was a wide-ranging in terms of dynamics. In the fortissimos the sound bounced allk around making things feel at times a little too big for the space. But the emotion was there, so too the payoff. If you went into the auditorium fearing your final breath, this performance made the prospect altogether more appealing, even something to look forward to.  

To round off, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels. Electrifying solos from the E flat clarinet, principal horn and principal oboe. An entire second half of Strauss may not necessarily appeal yet, this worked as a surprisingly effective palette cleanser.  

What surprised me throughout this was how engaged my pal was during the performance. She was unfamiliar with any of the music in the concert yet completely engaged with what was going on on the stage below her.  

During the interval, she and I ended up talking to the other person in the box with us, a marketing exec who had secured her last minute ticket, curious about the live orchestral sound after having introduced herself to western classical music via YouTube using playlists to aid her concentration when doing her office work. “This is my first live orchestral concert,” she exclaimed when I returned from the bar. When the applause died down she turned to me to ask all manner of technical questions about string players and the difference between flautists and clarinetists.  

The music was a joy, so too the performance. That the person asking all the questions was returning to Mumbai in a month’s time made me think that contrary to what all the doommongers are saying, classical music’s future is in safe hands.  

Also, as a point of reference. The money I spent on tickets today was the same I spent on one ticket in the cheapest seats at the Walt Disney Concert Hall seeing the LA Phil last weekend.