We’ve always known what a superb machine the CBSO is, so the opportunity to admire its separate parts was not to be missed. And what a splendid occasion it was, both for the players and Alpesh Chauhan, whose contract as the orchestra’s assistant conductor has just been extended for a second year.
Of course, when a section plays on its own the conductor becomes more of a co-ordinator than full-on interpreter, something Chauhan clearly understands. His unforced handling of Strauss’s Suite in B flat for 13 winds allowed plenty of space for elasticity of phrasing and articulation, and some deliciously mellifluous solos.
For the brass Elgar Howarth’s imaginative arrangement of Mussorgky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed just what exciting sounds can be drawn from an expanded palette of brass colours (especially when played with such firm-of-lip panache) and a conductor alert to good balance.
The two percussion items were less rewarding. Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood might be an intriguing rhythmic exercise, but quickly outstays its 8-minute duration; and the huge array of instruments in John Cage’s First Construction (in Metal), which Chauhan conducted with military four-in-a-bar precision, certainly tickled the ears although, by today’s standards, its inventiveness seemed disappointingly limited.
Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony for strings, however, was quite different. With its four-note motif an ever-present symbol of the composer’s torment and despair, and the cello solos of Eduardo Vassallo singing songs of forlorn memory, this was a stunningly moving performance, made even more so by the unobtrusive direction of concert master Laurence Jackson. When musicians listen so intently to each other who needs a conductor?