Can you fit Shostakovich 5th in a Covid hall?main
Our latest City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra review from Chris Morley:
CBSO Symphony Hall ****
Anyone who proudly declares “I don’t listen to twentieth-century music” is a fool to himself, missing out on all but one of Elgar’s greatest works, most of Puccini, a good deal of Richard Strauss, Debussy and Ravel.
My list could go on into the far-off distance, but it would certainly include the three works the CBSO imaginatively bundled together in its latest pair of Wednesday concerts. Not only did they all originate in the first half of that apparently problematic century, their inclusion also built up the personnel of the orchestra in steps towards its massive conclusion in the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich.
Conductor Nicholas Collon spoke of this remarkable achievement, putting “this huge piece” onto this Covid-restricted stage, before launching into an account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments.
Balance, detail and ensemble from these woodwind (wonderful tendril-like interleaving) and brass were impeccably judged, but Collon cultivated a lyrical flow at the expense of the austere, hieratic grandeur which should be the work’s abiding impression.
Then the strings took over, bringing Britten’s (a name which for some reason makes some alleged music-lovers reach for the garlic and silver crucifix) emotionally absorbing Reflections on a Song of John Dowland for Viola and Strings. Britten was himself a violist, well understanding the soulful singing capabilities of the instrument, but also its resourceful technical possibilities.
Lawrence Power was the soloist, beginning with a solo account (and singing the opening lines) of Dowland’s “If my complaints could passions move”, then moving on, joined by a dark-hued string orchestra (no top-range first violins), through a succession of variations which evoked a more sombre response to Britten’s earlier Frank Bridge Variations.
Power’s surprisingly delicate instrument produced a beautiful, elegant tone, as well as permitting a pizzicato of surprising eloquence.
As this wonderful quarter of an hour drew towards its close and revelation of its source-material, I felt the presence of Tippett’s yet-to-come Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, both works operating in a similar way.
At last we had the full complement for the Shostakovich, with socially-distanced string sound richly diffused (not least at the rhetorical opening), and at other times creepingly glacial.
Collon had a clear grasp of the music’s shape and direction (though his second movement scherzo was somewhat leaden and heavy-footed, a less-than-successful imitation of Mahler).
But he created an appropriately hollow reading of the finale’s bombastic wake-up call after the introspection of the largo. Here Shostakovich was writing for his threatened life after Stalin’s denunciations, and he produced proletariat-rousing triumphant music, concealing beneath its glitter a fatiguing meretriciousness which Collon and his players certainly found.
Slippedisc has reviewed every concert in the CBSO’s centenary season, many of them unnoticed by general media. We are expanding our review capacity and can do the same for you when concerts reopen. Contact us to discuss.