United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Bernstein, Prokofiev: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Lahav Shani (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 20.4.2016. (JQ)
Tchaikovsky – Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture
Bernstein – West Side Story – Symphonic Dances
Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet – highlights
This concert was part of the CBSO’s ‘Our Shakespeare’ focus in the year that marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard. In fact, this programme focused entirely on one play, Romeo and Juliet. The twenty-seven year-old Israeli conductor, Lahav Shani, has appeared with the CBSO before but tonight’s concert was the first opportunity I’d had to experience him in action.
The performance of Tchaikovsky’s perennial favourite impressed from the start. Indeed, it seemed to me that Shani got the piece just right. He moulded the introduction well, though not officiously, and I liked the grainy sound he drew from the lower strings. Good tension was generated. There was brilliance and fire in the depiction of the fight. On its first appearance, Shani ensured that the Love Music was not overblown – at this point Tchaikovsky was depicting innocent lovers, after all – but when the music returned it had all the necessary passion and ardour. The tragedy of the ending was real enough but not overblown. This was a fresh and unhackneyed reading of the score and the CBSO played it very well indeed.
Fast forward to 1957 and in the ground-breaking musical West Side Story you have a very twentieth-century take on the Romeo and Juliet story. The Symphonic Dances that Bernstein drew from the show are scored for full orchestra – a good number of additional players came onto the platform after the Tchaikovsky. In this full orchestral guise you lose the tightness of the original pit band scoring. However, the expanded version is very colourful indeed and that brings its own rewards. Hearing these extracts as, in effect, an orchestral suite reinforces a couple of things. One is the thematic links between various parts of the score. More tellingly, the Symphonic Dances confirm just how advanced a lot of this music is in terms of rhythms and the harmonic language, not least in the use of dissonance. Bernstein, the serious concert hall composer, made few concessions to Broadway in composing this great score.
Shani and the CBSO gave a vivid account of the music. As the Jets and Sharks strutted their stuff in the ‘Prologue’ the playing was at first incisive and sassy and then brash and exciting, the bongos beating out frenetic tattoos. Shani ensured that ‘Somewhere’ was suitably yearning while the Coplandesque ‘Scherzo’ was light on its feet. The percussion section drove ‘Mambo’ along in manic style and as the movement reached its exuberant conclusion the CBSO trumpeters had a field day, blowing, as they say, mean horns. The sultry rhythms of ‘Cha Cha’ were well inflected. The ‘Cool’ Fugue is a terrific invention: who but Bernstein would have thought to introduce a 12-tone, rigorous fugue into a Broadway show – and who but Lennie would have made it so gripping? This section, above all, is where you realize how musically advanced West Side Story is. Shani built the music powerfully, generating a strident climax. ‘Rumble’ is just as advanced in terms of Broadway music; here it was done with great panache. Finally, the tender, tragic ending was really well done, the CBSO strings playing with great sensitivity.
Another Russian take on Romeo and Juliet followed the interval. A couple of years ago Andris Nelsons and the CBSO played a selection of numbers from Prokofiev’s great ballet score (review). Here Lahav Shani offered a selection that contained many of the same pieces. I remember that I greatly enjoyed the Nelsons concert and Shani’s performance was another fine one. Like Nelsons, his selection included many movements that lie at the heart of the drama but both conductors sensibly interspersed two or three of the lighter dance movements.
The start of Shani’s performance – ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – augured well, the massive dissonant chords built thrillingly and, at their peak, thrust home with great power. In the same movement we had the lumbering Knights’ Dance but also passages of much greater delicacy. ‘The Young Girl Juliet’ began with scampering eagerness but when Prokofiev shows us the more thoughtful side of her nature Shani was just as adept in bringing out the nature of the music. The ‘Balcony Scene began with a lovely depiction of a moonlit night from the CBSO. At the start of the encounter between the two young lovers I admired very much the lustrous tone of the cello section, and then the violins took over and sent the music soaring to the heights. Under Shani’s enthusiastic leadership the orchestra invested the music with ardour and romantic sweep but just as impressive was the spellbinding clarity that the players brought to Prokofiev’s magical scoring at the end.
From ardent young love we moved to violence with ‘The Death of Tybalt’. This was vivid and dramatic. The fight itself was fast and furious; no quarter was given. After Tybalt had been slain his body was borne off with shattering power. When we got to ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’ the gentle early morning scene at the start was etched in through beautifully nuanced playing. At first the young lovers recalled their night together with tenderness but passion was soon rekindled and hereabouts I greatly admired the ardour of the string playing and also that of the horns. And so to the tragic dénouement. The strings were searing at the start of ‘Romeo at the Tomb of Juliet’. The pages that followed were full of intensity – the high horns cut through thrillingly. My only criticism would be that if Shani had adopted a tempo that was very slightly more expansive he might have wrung even more tension and anguish from the music without going over the top. The soft, tragic ending was presented with no little feeling, bringing to an end this very fine performance of Prokofiev’s inspired music.
This concert took place just three days before the date on which Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated. It’s by no means the end of the CBSO’s ‘Our Shakespeare’ celebration; among the delights still to come is a concert performance of Verdi’s Falstaff in July, led by Edward Gardner. However, this evening was a splendid tribute to the Bard and to one of his greatest plays. The CBSO was on excellent form, responding splendidly to their conductor for the evening. Lahav Shani impressed me very much. He inspired his players without being histrionic or flashy and this evening he obtained splendid result, His is clearly a significant talent and I hope we shall see him in Birmingham again very soon.