United Kingdom Ravel, Britten, Shostakovich: Sophie Bevan (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 26.4.2018. (RP)
Ravel – Miroirs – ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ (orch. Colin Matthews), ‘Alborada del gracioso’
Britten – Les Illuminations Op.18
Shostakovich – Symphony No.10 in E minor Op.93
This was my first visit to the West Midlands and Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city. The downtown area is a construction site, as Centenary Square goes through a major revamp, but despite some navigational snafus, I made it.
The draw was obvious: the renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Symphony Hall, whose acoustics rank among the best in the world. The interior of the hall is impressive too, with its warm woods, deep orange furnishings and metal surfaces, including the pipes of the largest mechanical action organ in Britain. And there was also Nicholas Collon conducting an intriguing grouping of Ravel, Britten and Shostakovich, all exceptional masters of orchestral colors.
There is another, perhaps less obvious connection linking the composers that is worth mentioning – Colin Matthews.
Early in his career, Matthews was Britten’s assistant, and he then collaborated with Deryck Cooke in the preparation of the performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony published in 1976. Turning to Ravel, Matthews’ orchestration of ‘Oiseaux Tristes’ was commissioned by the BBC and first performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2015 Proms with Collon conducting. It all fits together rather neatly, especially for those of us who are fascinated by how musical programs come together.
‘Oiseaux Tristes’ depicts birds in flight, lost in a dark forest in the summer heat. Matthew’s version opens with a solo clarinet that darts in and out of the languid musical textures until the sound simply fades away. ‘Alborada del gracioso’, orchestrated by Ravel himself, is all rhythmic vitality; strings and harps plucked out a seguidilla while the sounds of castanets ricocheted throughout the hall. Lyricism is afforded by the solo bassoon that gives voice to the gracioso, or the fool of classic Spanish theater.
These two contrasting works foreshadowed all that was to come. Collon had complete command over orchestra and audience, and both were equally attentive to his wishes. The fleet-footed changes in mood and dynamics were astonishing, as were the clarity and lighter-than-air feeling to the orchestra’s sound, irrespective of volume or texture, and the virtuosity of the principal players was revealed. All of this would combine to spectacular effect in the Shostakovich.
In between came Britten’s Les Illuminations, settings of texts drawn from Arthur Rimbaud’s collection of prose poems of the same name. Although Sophie Bevan did little more than stand and sing, her voice and face perfectly captured the dreamlike, nonsensical mood of the poems and the music, infusing their fantastical, sensory images with mystery and wonder. I was particularly impressed by how deftly the soprano and conductor communicated, especially since he hardly tossed a glance her way. They just felt the music.
This was my third major Shostakovich work in a little over two weeks; the others were his Fourth Symphony performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall with Andris Nelsons conducting (review click here), and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera. Completed six months after Stalin’s death in March 1953, Symphony No.10 effectively bookends a harrowing chapter in the composer’s life, which began with his official denouncement by Soviet authorities in 1936. While hardly brimming with joy and optimism, this is a surprisingly light-textured work, in spite of the brief, brutal second movement that many observers have interpreted as a musical portrait of Stalin.
Given the emotional forces that Collon releases in a performance, his conducting style is subdued. As in the Britten, there were times in the Shostakovich that he almost receded into the background, especially during the many solos that Shostakovich generously sprinkled about the orchestra. Due to the prominent placement of the timpani on stage, Matt Hardy seemed to be in constant dialogue with Collon. Some of the most profound moments were the horns playing the DSCH theme, Shostakovich’s musical monogram.
Such details, as wonderful as they may be, do not a Shostakovich symphony make. That requires the authority, energy and intensity capable of releasing the powerful, complex emotions of this monumental work. Collon and the CBSO were more than equal to the task.
For more about the CBSO click here.