Sibelius once grumbled that Beecham sounded like he was conducting his seventh symphony from the first violin part. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to describe Lahav Shani’s Lichfield Festival performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” symphony that way: the CBSO’s current string section plays with such richness and depth that it couldn’t sound two-dimensional if it tried. But you got the distinct feeling that the beauties of this performance were despite, rather than because of, the conductor.
Maybe that’s unfair. Shani has an engaging stage presence, and in the world premiere of David Matthews’ Toward Sunrise he drew a colourful, expressive performance. It’s an evocation of the early hours, evoking Vaughan Williams and Sibelius in its spaciousness and dark, oil-paint tone-colours but somehow sadder and stranger than both, and ending with a sunrise of stark, piercing intensity.
Jennifer Pike was the soloist in a headlong performance of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto. Her tone has a fascinatingly smoky quality, and what this reading lacked in fantasy, it made up for in energy. Shani accompanied stolidly, and in light of what followed in the Beethoven, you had to wonder how far that had clipped Pike’s wings.
He seemed to favour surface sheen over detail and string sound over anything else that’s happening in the orchestra, and despite some wonderfully characterful woodwind and horn solos, the air quickly drained from this performance. Shani’s ecstatic gestures at big moments couldn’t compensate for carelessly-placed chords, or hearing the opening violin melody of the Shepherds’ Hymn manicured almost to a standstill. Hate to say it, but in the words of another 20-something maestro who once stood in front of the CBSO, “to have a chauffeured limo-drive through Beethoven’s symphonies means you’re missing something”.