When Simon Rattle left the CBSO in 1998 predictions of the orchestra's imminent demise came flooding in from the press. Sakari Oramo, who filled Rattle's shoes, achieved what everyone thought was impossible, further honing the CBSO's sound, using his knowledge and expertise as a violinist to give the strings more polish and precision than they'd previously had. With two very different, but equally distinguished musical directors to follow on from, the CBSO's current musical director, Andris Nelsons, had a lot to prove when he took over in 2008, and walking in the footsteps of such giants as Rattle and Oramo was never going to be an easy task. There are those who say the CBSO's heyday is now over, but this Prom provided strong evidence to the contrary, showing the orchestra to be one of the best in Britain.
The concert began with an exciting rendition of Glinka's overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmilla. This rarely performed piece, by a rarely performed composer, is a veritable explosion of sound and it was executed with perfection by the CBSO. From the raucous brass, to the unbelievably tight string playing, this was a performance that brimmed with vibrancy and left you wanting more.
The second item of the first half was the UK première of Emily Howard's Calculus of the Nervous System. This evocative work really tested the orchestra's dynamic range, particularly their pianissimos, and the CBSO showed themselves to be more than a match for its considerable technical and emotional challenges. The strings sustained endless chords that were so quiet you started to question if they were there at all, while clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter crescendoed out of the nothingness, with notes that seemed to have no beginning and no end. This was a piece that really made you listen, and drew you in, and its 15 minutes seemed to pass in an instant. Whether intentionally or not, the quietness also focused attention onto the noises of the typically restless Proms audience, with moments that were so quietly enrapturing that none of the audience's vast number dared so much as breathe.
The crowning jewel in the CBSO’s programme was their performance of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. This is a work steeped in history, not only surrounding its composition, but also its earliest performances. The symphony was completed in Leningrad while the city was under siege from the Nazi’s during World War II and was seen by many, both in Russia and the west, as a powerful piece of anti-Nazi propaganda. Following performances in Moscow, London and New York the work finally received its Leningrad première while the city was still besieged. The siege had reduced the number of members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra to just 15, so many amateur and military musicians had to make up the numbers for that first performance which was broadcast throughout the city and into the camps of the Germans as an act of defiance and psychological warfare.
The CBSO’s performance under Nelsons was simply electric. From the outset the strident opening benefitted from the orchestra’s impressive string sound, while the second subject was still and sensitively played. The woodwind solos were all beautifully controlled, but not lacking any of the necessary spring and excitement. Special mention must go to the E-flat clarinet player, Joanna Paton, and piccolo player, Andrew Lane, whose playing was especially gripping.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this performance was the dynamics. The pianos were breathtakingly quiet, while every crescendo gave the impression it could continue indefinitely. The central section of the first movement is a long marching “invasion” and crescendos inexorably towards the movement’s climax. The CBSO filled the hall, making the floor rumble with sound, while maintaining perfect balance. So often these moments can become one big roar of brass, but that wasn’t the case here. Nelsons managed to direct a performance that not only had wonderful moments, but felt like an organic whole over the work’s full 75 minutes, an impressive achievement for any conductor. Anyone who ever had doubts about the CBSO’s future should see this concert as proof that they continue to impress greatly.
which kick-started a new era in Russian music. In
Calculus of the Nervous System, which has already
taken Vienna by storm, Emily Howard draws upon
her interest in the inner world of Ada Lovelace,
pioneering mathematician daughter of Lord Byron,
considered a prophet of the
computer age. Shostakovich
completed his titanic Seventh
Symphony as German armies
advanced deep into the
motherland. More recently it
has also been seen as one of
his exercises in tactful
subversion, depicting a
Leningrad whose intellectual
life Stalin had already
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
CBSO and Andris Nelsons © Neil Pugh