There is a certain logic in pairing Schostakowitsch‘s first and last symphonies. Symphony #1, his graduation work from the Petrograd Conservatory, is an experimental work looking forward to the music style he would develop through his compositional career. Symphony #15, written in failing health, looked back upon that career and made reference to it (along with snippets from Wagner, Mahler, Rossini, and others). Both pieces use full orchestras, but spend most of their time bringing out delicate juxtapositions of individual instruments – more concerto for orchestra than symphony.
The first symphony is clearly a student work, often failing to develop portions, while in a hurry to move on to the next thing, to demonstrate to the examiners that he could tick the boxes (albeit quite elaborate ticks). The fifteenth benefits from 45 more years of composition, and without going overboard does resolve each theme and section.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic programmed these works tonight at the Festival. The large swells were there, but so were all the details. I already knew both symphonies, but felt as though I was hearing both for this first time. So many details often remain hidden in the complex workings of these symphonies: they are not big showcases, and indeed are often delicate, but they are nevertheless showcases for the right orchestral forces. Rattle drew out all of the lines, and the orchestra responded with every intricacy intact. Even at quiet moments, the sound made its way through the hall in the right proportions.
As for the audience, it failed tonight. The whole hall seemed restless – lots of coughing, seats fidgeting, people standing up and sitting back down, and a mobile phone ringing. The man next to me seemed to be intent on swatting non-existent flies all night. Who were all these people and what did they do with the usual audience?