CBSO/Centre Stage/Birmingham Bach Choir * * *
Symphony Hall/ CBSO Centre
Review by Christopher Morley
After seeing Mozart off in fine style in his 250th birthday year, the CBSO turned its attention to Shostakovich at the end of last week, marking his centenary with performances of some of his most inward music.
Thursday's concert presented an elegant programme where significant first symphonies by Britten and Beethoven (the latter's Symphony no.1 given with much suave brio) sandwiched a late, valedictory concerto by Shostakovich himself, whose friendship with Britten, and their mutual passion for Beethoven, are well known.
The CBSO has a special link with Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, performing it many times under Simon Rattle who, thanks to his persuasiveness on tour to Japan, secured the rights to give a unique performance of its original version before Britten pruned it effectively.
The reading here under Garry Walker built patiently from the opening's stealthy lamenting tread, the huge dissonant climax truly searing, through a dance of death of stunning impetus, and into a finale of great consolation.
Shostakovich's Cello Concerto no. 2 is one of his darkest pieces, the familiar fingerprints giving it not only an inner cogency but also reaching out to his other works.
The soloist is virtually ever-present, and Truls M?rk's account was well-characterised in a reading of subtle strength and an almost vocal tone. His collaboration with ominously ticking percussion at the end summed up all the work's desolation, and it needed his sweet encore (a movement from Britten's Second Suite) to reassure the spirit.
M?rk put himself through two further harrowing Shostakovich experiences at Friday lunchtime's Centre Stage concert, when he selflessly joined CBSO players for performances of the deeply troubled Second Piano Trio and the grimly whimsical Piano Quintet.
Forged at very short acquaintance, his collaboration within this chamber group of Julia Beisswanger, David Gregory, Ulf ?berg and the remarkable Caroline Palmer (a pianist new to me) was nothing short of extraordinary, and warmed the heart despite the bleakness of the music.
Compensating joyousness should have reigned supreme on Saturday, when the Christmas Oratorio by Bach was given at Symphony Hall by a full-throated Birmingham Bach Choir under Paul Spicer.
Actually we only heard Parts 1, 2, 3 and 6, though ample time was available for the missing two, but perhaps this was just as well. For all its many stylish moments, Spicer coaxing phrasing and rhythmic pointing of great shapeliness from the BBC and English Chamber Orchestra, the performance remained leaden, unable to disguise the fact that much of the music is not Bach at his best.
Among the soloists, soprano Sophie Bevan sang with wonderful warmth of tone and agility, and Nathan Vale, adding the Evangelist's role to his announced tenor solos, delivered his music with intelligence and elegance, though understandably tiring towards the end.