Sunday 12 April

Rachmaninoff & Shostakovich

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor Op 18

1. Moderato
2. Adagio sostenuto – Più animato – Tempo I
3. Allegro scherzando

Seong-Jin Cho piano

The Second Piano Concerto was the major work marking Rachmaninoff’s return to composition after the period of silence and self-doubt that followed the failure of his First Symphony in 1897. He wrote the second and third movements quickly in the summer of 1900, but ran into problems with the first movement and rather surprisingly he was persuaded by his cousin, the pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti, to give a public performance of the concerto in its incomplete form – surely a risky venture for a composer so sensitive to criticism. The success of the two completed movements at a Moscow concert in December 1900 did much to re-establish Rachmaninoff’s self-confidence, and the premiere of the completed concerto followed on 27 October 1901.

Each of the concerto’s three movements begins with an idea which leads subtly into the main theme. In the first movement it is the magical wide-spread piano chords, increasing in intensity until they plunge into a great surging string melody. Here, as throughout the concerto, the lasting image is that of piano and orchestra playing together; for despite all the virtuosity demanded of the soloist, the piano is rarely heard alone, and the two elements are blended in an ever-changing symphonic texture.

In the slow movement, after a hushed string introduction, it is the sound of piano and solo wind instruments that sets the mood, the varied textures masking the close relationships between the themes of the first two movements. The introduction to the finale hints at a march, but what emerges after the opening orchestral gestures and a brief piano cadenza is more in the nature of a vigorous dance which alternates with a long, vocal melody closely related to the big tune of the first movement.

The Second Piano Concerto quickly became one of the most popular works in the repertory. The piano writing draws on all the resources of a late-Romantic keyboard style, ranging from dazzling bravura to confessional intimacy. Rachmaninoff always maintained that the difficulties of the Second Concerto were just as great as those of the formidable Third, composed nine years later, but were of a different order: it is not a question of the technique needed to master the notes, but of judging the exact sonority and weight of the notes in different registers to produce the gradations of tone that made the composer’s own performances so outstanding.

Note by Andrew Huth Andrew Huth is a musician, writer and translator who writes extensively on French, Russian and Eastern European music.

Image: Ships in a Storm by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1860

Sergei Rachmaninoff

'Melody is music the basis of music as a whole, since a perfect melody implies and calls into being its own harmonic design.'
Sergei Rachmaninoff

The Russian composer, pianist and conductor’s passion for melody was central to his work, clearly heard in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Although Sergei’s father squandered much of the family inheritance, he at first invested in his son’s musical education, helping the boy win a scholarship for the St Petersburg Conservatory. Further disasters at home hindered his progress and he moved to study in Moscow, where he was an outstanding piano pupil and began to study composition.

Rachmaninoff’s early works reveal his debt to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, although he rapidly forged a personal, richly lyrical musical language, clearly expressed in his Prelude in C-sharp minor for piano of 1892. His First Symphony of 1897 was savaged by the critics, which caused the composer’s confidence to evaporate. In desperation he sought help from Dr Nikolai Dahl, whose hypnotherapy sessions restored Rachmaninoff’s self-belief and gave him the will to complete his Second Piano Concerto, widely known through its later use as the soundtrack for the classic film Brief Encounter. Thereafter, his creative imagination ran free to produce a string of unashamedly romantic works divorced from newer musical trends.

He left Russia shortly before the October Revolution in 1917, touring as pianist and conductor and buying properties in Europe and the United States.

Composer profile by Andrew Stewart

Andrew Stewart is a freelance music journalist and writer. He is the author of The LSO at 90, and contributes to a wide variety of specialist classical music publications.

Mily Balakirev

1869, arr Alfredo Casella 1907

The music of the East exerted a powerful fascination on many 19th-century Russian composers: it can be heard in such influential works as Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Balakirev’s Islamey, described as an ‘Oriental Fantasy for piano’ and composed in the autumn of 1869.

When Balakirev first thought of Islamey, the piano work was intended as a sketch for a large symphonic poem which had been taking shape in his mind, but the orchestral work eventually called Tamara did not appear until 1882, by which time the solo piano work Islamey had already become famous in its own right.

The overall shape of Islamey is quite simple: the first section presents and develops two related themes which Balakirev had heard during his visits to the Caucasus, where he was thrilled by the landscapes, the people and their music. A slower central section is based on a Tartar melody from the Crimea, which Balakirev heard sung by an Armenian actor in Tchaikovsky’s Moscow flat in the summer of 1869 (the two men were then close friends). A third section is a varied and concentrated reprise of the first, followed by a dashing coda.

Islamey is one of the most notoriously difficult piano works in the repertory. The Italian composer Alfredo Casella made an orchestral transcription of it in 1907 and showed it to Balakirev, who approved and recommended it to his publisher. This version, performed in tonight's concert, was first heard in Paris in May 1908, conducted by Casella.

Another orchestration of Islamey was made in 1912 by Balakirev’s pupil Lyapunov, who more closely followed Balakirev’s own orchestral practices (as heard in the two symphonies and Tamara), with a bold use of primary orchestral colours and an uninhibited use of percussion. Casella’s orchestration is more freely imagined: he probably did not know much about Balakirev’s orchestral style, but from the piano score he created his own orchestral showpiece exploiting all the resources of a modern virtuoso symphony orchestra.

Note by Andrew Huth

Image: The Prophet by Nicholas Roerich, 1925

Mily Balakirev

Born in Nizny Novgorod, a city on the Volga river, the young Mily Balakirev began his musical studies with his mother. In his teenage years he was taken under the wing of wealthy land owner and music lover Alexander Ulybyshev, who gave him access to his vast library of musical scores.

Balakirev studied maths at Kazan university, meanwhile nurturing hopes for a career in music. In 1858, he made a brilliant pianistic debut in Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto in the presence of the Tsar, and achieved popularity with his incidental music for King Lear in 1861.

Balakirev took to heart Glinka’s ambition for a tradition of Russian classical music reflecting the spirit of the country, and in 1861 he established the Free School of Music; here he nurtured the next generation of Russian composers, programming concerts of his own music alongside works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Cui and Borodin – the five of them making up Russia’s Mighty Handful.

Balakirev stepped down as director of the Free School due to frustrated relations with colleagues, but made a comeback soon after with his most popular piece, Islamey. His next big hit was the symphonic poem Tamara, premiered in 1833, which wowed audiences with its lavish textures and distinctly Russian flavour.

Temperament and tactlessness made Balakirev enemies. He experienced spells of animosity with even his closest friends, such as Rimsky-Korsakov, and colleagues including his publisher Jurgenson, who dropped Balakirev from his roster.

Balakirev made his final appearance at the Free School conducting his First Symphony in 1898. Its success led to further compositions – the ‘Glinka’ Cantata and a Second Symphony – but these were received with indifference. Alienated from his peers, Balakirev had few friends to offer comfort in his final years.

Composer profile by Steven Doran

Dmitri Shostakovich
Symphony No 1 in F minor Op 10


1. Allegretto – Allegro ma non troppo
2. Allegro
3. Lento
4. Allegro molto – Lento – Allegro molto

When Shostakovich’s First Symphony appeared in 1926, it was welcomed as both a revelation of a new musical voice and as the first outstanding musical work to be composed in Russia since the Revolution – an artistic justification of the Brave New World being created in the USSR. This double view – musical and political – was to be applied to Shostakovich’s music for the rest of his life, often with disastrous personal consequences for the composer, although that was not something that could be foreseen in the early 1920s.

Shostakovich was born in the year after the abortive Revolution of 1905 (which he commemorated in his Eleventh Symphony), and was just 11 years old when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. He grew up during a period of massive social upheaval, civil war and extreme hardship. He was a naturally iconoclastic young man. Music, much of it wild and disorganised, poured out of him with amazing facility. In the First Symphony, though, he was able to write something utterly personal and at the same time win the approval (or at least the grudging respect) of his elders by organising his ideas into a large span which is truly symphonic.

Whatever definition we give the word ‘symphony’, the title still gives rise to expectations of continuity of thought over several movements, a contrast of ideas and moods, themes that can be developed and renewed, and a variety of incidents, all contained within a single, organic process. Plenty of young composers have the ideas, but only a select few have the ability to build them into such a large-scale structure.

The First Symphony was conceived in 1923, when Shostakovich, not yet 17, was already being spoken of as the most outstanding talent in the Petrograd Conservatoire. Two orchestral scherzos, composed in 1919 and 1923, had shown his instinct for orchestral writing, and when in 1924 the Conservatoire set the composition of a symphony as a graduation test piece, Shostakovich was prepared for the challenge. He completed his work in the first two months of 1925, while scraping together some sort of a living bashing away at the piano in Leningrad cinemas, accompanying silent films.

The Symphony was performed by Nikolai Malko and the Leningrad Philharmonic on 12 May 1926. A Berlin performance under Bruno Walter took place in May 1927, and it was soon taken up by Toscanini, Stokowski and Klemperer, among others. The work was always a favourite of the composer himself, and quotations from it appear in both his autobiographical Eighth String Quartet and in his last symphony, the Fifteenth.

Shostakovich’s First Symphony has the least pretentious of openings. Its wry search for a key and a theme reveals the composer’s lifelong tendency towards sparse, concentrated use of instruments, treating the orchestra as an ensemble of soloists. This is music in which every note counts, every sound stands out clearly and meaningfully.

References to march and waltz styles, tinged with irony, show the young composer’s absorption of common, popular material to his own expressive ends. The scherzo second movement, which was immediately encored at the Symphony’s premiere, adds a piano (Shostakovich’s own instrument) to the orchestra, playing a quirky individual role in the spiky humour of the movement.

In the Largo there is a breadth of thought, a superb control of phrasing and tempo which creates a sense of both space and depth. This is the movement that most clearly foreshadows some of the epic statements of Shostakovich’s later work, when his view of the world, and consequently his musical language, had become far more complex.

The finale balances the high spirits of the first two movements with the depth of the third in a virtuoso combination of contrasts. Here is a voice that would change in emphasis and style over the next half-century, but would always be recognisable. As one would expect from a youthful first symphony it is inventive and exuberant, but the music is often coloured with anxiety and at times even a sense of nervous panic.

Note by Andrew Huth

Image: Demonstration on October 17, 1905 by Ilya Repin, 1907

Dmitri Shostakovich

After early piano lessons with his mother, Shostakovich enrolled at the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1919. He announced his Fifth Symphony of 1937 as ‘a Soviet artist’s practical creative reply to just criticism’. A year before its premiere he had drawn a stinging attack from the official Soviet mouthpiece Pravda, in which Shostakovich’s initially successful opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District was condemned for its ‘leftist bedlam’ and extreme modernism. With the Fifth Symphony came acclaim not only from the Russian audience, but also from musicians and critics overseas.

Shostakovich lived through the first months of the German siege of Leningrad, serving as a member of the auxiliary fire service. He completed his Seventh Symphony after his evacuation and dedicated the score to the city. A micro-filmed copy was despatched by way of Tehran and an American warship to the US, where it was broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Toscanini. In 1943 Shostakovich completed his Eighth Symphony, its emotionally shattering music compared by one critic to Picasso’s Guernica.

In 1948 Shostakovich and other leading composers, Prokofiev among them, were forced by the Soviet cultural commissar, Andrey Zhdanov, to concede that their work represented ‘most strikingly the formalistic perversions and anti-democratic tendencies in music’, a crippling blow to Shostakovich’s artistic freedom that was healed only after the death of Stalin in 1953. Shostakovich answered his critics later that year with the Tenth Symphony, in which he portrays ‘human emotions and passions’, rather than the collective dogma of Communism.

Composer profile by Andrew Stewart

Gianandrea Noseda
LSO Principal Guest Conductor

Gianandrea Noseda is one of the world’s most sought-after conductors, equally recognised for his artistry in the concert hall and opera house. He was named the National Symphony Orchestra’s seventh Music Director in January 2016, beginning his four-year term in the 2017/18 season. In September 2018, his contract was extended for four more years through to the 2024/25 season. In 2019, Noseda and the NSO earned rave reviews for their first concerts together at Carnegie Hall in New York. The 2019/20 season sees their partnership continue to flourish with twelve weeks of concerts at the Kennedy Center – including performances of Beethoven’s nine symphonies – the launch of a new recording label to be distributed by LSO Live and their first overseas tour together to Japan and China in March 2020.

Noseda also serves as Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Principal Conductor of the Orquestra de Cadaqués, and Artistic Director of the Stresa Festival in Italy. In the 2021/22 season, Noseda will become General Music Director of the Zurich Opera House, where he will lead his first Ring cycle. From 2007 to 2018, Noseda served as Music Director of the Teatro Regio Torino, where his leadership and his initiatives propelled the company’s global reputation.

Noseda has an extensive discography of over sixty recordings for Chandos and Deutsche Grammophon, among others. He is closely involved with the next generation of musicians through his work as Music Director of the Tsinandali Festival and Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra, which just concluded its inaugural season, as well as with other youth orchestras, including the European Union Youth Orchestra.

A native of Milan, Noseda is Commendatore al Merito della Repubblica Italiana, marking his contribution to the artistic life of Italy. In 2015, he was Musical America’s Conductor of the Year, and was named the 2016 International Opera Awards Conductor of the Year.

Image: Ranald Mackechnie

Seong-Jin Cho

With an overwhelming talent and innate musicality, Seong-Jin Cho is rapidly embarking on a world-class career and is considered one of the most distinctive artists of his generation. His thoughtful and poetic, assertive and tender, virtuosic and colourful playing combines panache with purity. Seong-Jin Cho was brought to the world’s attention in 2015 when he won the First Prize at the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw. This same competition launched the careers of such world-class artists as Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman.

In January 2016, Seong-Jin signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. The first recording was released in November 2016 featuring Chopin’s First Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Gianandrea Noseda. A solo Debussy disc was released in November 2017, followed by a Mozart album in 2018 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Yannick Nézet-Séguin. An active recitalist, he performs in many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls. In the 2018/19 season, he returned to the main stage of Carnegie Hall as part of the Keyboard Virtuoso series, where his performances sold out in 2017.

In November 2017, Seong-Jin stepped in for Lang Lang with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle for concerts in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Seoul. He collaborates with conductors at the highest level such as Valery Gergiev, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Yuri Temirkanov, Krzysztof Urbański, Fabien Gabel, Vassily Petrenko, Jakub Hrůša, Leonard Slatkin and Mikhail Pletnev.

Born in 1994 in Seoul, Seong-Jin Cho started learning the piano at six and gave his first public recital at the age of eleven. In 2009, he became the youngest ever winner of Japan’s Hamamatsu International Piano Competition. In 2011, he won third prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the age of 17. In 2012, he moved to Paris to study with Michel Béroff at the Paris Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique, where he graduated in 2015. He is now based in Berlin.

Image: Holger Hage

The LSO was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.

The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.

Through LSO Discovery, it is a pioneer of music education, offering musical experiences to 60,000 people every year at its music education centre LSO St Luke’s on Old Street, across East London and further afield.

The LSO strives to embrace new digital technologies in order to broaden its reach, and with the formation of its own record label LSO Live in 1999 it pioneered a revolution in recording live orchestral music. With a discography spanning many genres and including some of the most iconic recordings ever made the LSO is now the most recorded and listened to orchestra in the world, regularly reaching over 3,500,000 people worldwide each month on Spotify and beyond. The Orchestra continues to innovate through partnerships with market-leading tech companies, as well as initiatives such as LSO Play. The LSO is a highly successful creative enterprise, with 80% of all funding self-generated.

Image: Ranald Mackechnie

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Thursday 16 April 2020 7.30pm BST
Mahler Symphony No 2

Semyon Bychkov  conductor