United Kingdom Spirit of 1945 – Britten, Copland, Strauss, Shostakovich: Francois Leleux (oboe), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 19.11.14 (CST)
Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Strauss: Oboe Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No.9
If there are two undeniable aspects of the young Nicholas Collon’s personal make-up that mark him out as a progressive musical spirit, it is his adventurous, innovative approach to programming and his entrepreneurial efforts to bring that innovation of programming to fruition.
Both traits of the Clare College Cambridge graduate and founder of the Aurora Orchestra were present in this compelling concert, which was fascinatingly forged from four seemingly disparate yet strikingly individual works united by one simple common factor; the year 1945.
Collon’s engaging, highly communicative musical personality seemed to be stamped on the CBSO’s performance from the off, with the conductor’s lean frame and tousled mop of curls seemingly a metaphor for the life-affirming joy that imbued Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the biting wit, irony and ultimately elusive qualities of Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony, a work that in the hands of Collon and the CBSO, by turns sparkled, mystified and grinned menacingly through gritted teeth.
By 1945 Benjamin Britten had reached a point in his career whereby he was redefining British opera, with Nicholas Collon and the CBSO heightening the still glorious originality of the Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in a reading that displayed a deft sense of light and shade in the fragile light of the strings in the opening bars as a grey dawn awakes over the East Anglian scenery. The gentle movement of the water was beautifully captured by the orchestra, as was the subsequent atmosphere of Sunday Morning, its pealing bells set against a backdrop of glistening waves and being portrayed by the orchestra with a bustling sense of activity as the local villagers arrive at church. The final wind ravaged Storm was dispatched with a crushing and masterly paced power although it was the evocative image of moonlight dancing on the waves in the third movement, punctuated by telling interjections from flute that made the deepest impression.
If the troubled psychological backdrop to Peter Grimes found Collon and the orchestra at their most evocative, Copland’s Appalachian Spring was imbued with a sheer joy and wonder that made a very direct impression on the audience in Symphony Hall. From the wide open spaces of the plains to the driving dance rhythms as the happy couple at the heart of Copland’s most overtly popular ballet celebrate their wedding day (the broad grin on Nicholas Collon’s face spoke as clearly as the playing) the joy was beautifully counterbalanced by the aching tenderness of the third section (Moderato) and the prayer like peace and serenity of the closing passages. When played with the freshness that it was here, the infectious accessibility and subtleties of Copland’s score remain vivid seventy years on from its composers attempts to re-capture the attention of an American audience that had become increasingly divorced from artistic culture.
Whilst Britten and Copland were busy re-inventing the musical cultures of the respective countries, an eighty year old Richard Strauss, having all but retired from full time composition, was looking back over his shoulder with his Oboe Concerto, a work that almost completely eschews the romantic notions and large orchestral forces of many of his earlier works in favour of a Mozartian classical model that for all its restraint, still displays many of Strauss’s pre-occupations of melodic line and architectural cohesion.
French oboist Francois Leleux brought a potent sense of Gallic charm to the latent classicism of Richard Strauss’s late, nostalgic work, his physical movement, presence and clear empathy for the work communicating itself clearly to an audience that was both warm and enthusiastic in its response. His phrasing of Strauss’s arching melodies in the opening movement proved to be a joy, albeit no less joyous than his glowing response and reverence to the nostalgia of the central Andante and the contrasting delicate playfulness of the final movement.
The soloist’s encore of Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, delivered with wonderful control and sensitivity, was the perfect answer to the audience’s appreciation.
Of all of Shostakovich’s symphonies, the Ninth is a work that more than most, sums up its composer’s renown for delivering the unexpected. It’s ‘inappropriate’ reputation belies what is a remarkable taught structural creation and the rhythmically incisive, almost circus like character of the opening movement was brought vividly to life by Collon, the music being delivered with both propulsion and bombast, aided by a potent contribution from the CBSOs’ brass section.
The elusive quality of the opening clarinet solo in the second movement melded seamlessly into the shifting string textures that follow, with Collon creating an uneasy atmosphere perfectly capturing the inherent ambiguity of the music whilst the plaintive sound of the CBSO’s principal bassoon player Johan Lammerse made for a telling introduction to the fleet-footed and ominous brass-laden undertones of the Finale.
Like Copland’s response to the artistic attitude of 1940’s audiences in the United States, Shostakovich’s music remains as profoundly relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.