Review: CUMS 1 Concert

JOE CONWAY is full of praise for what ‘turned out to be a bit of a miraculous evening’.

Cambridge University Music Society orchestra West Road Concert Hall

West Road Concert Hall.13th March, 8pm. £15/£12/£5

Dmitry Sitkovetsky looked a distinctly happy bunny at the end of the night. This jet-setting conductor's biog reads like a list of the top orchestras, venues, and festivals of the world -from Helsinki to Adelaide. So it's immensely to the credit of the CUMS I Orchestra that it rose to the occasion and performed with consistent professionalism throughout an evening of demanding 20th century music.

You could even speculate that in addition to accuracy and reliability the players contributed a measure of youthful fire that isn't always found among blasé professionals. For example the cellos and basses kicked off the start of the second movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with more genuine attack and aggression than I've ever heard before. The dozen or so musicians involved played as one and the effect was electric!

When the tricky high clarinet solo started up immediately afterwards, it was full of shrill exuberance, and the subsequent brass playing was as raucous as you'd want, but solid and dependable too. A few minutes earlier the first movement had ended in a haze of magical orchestration. Horn calls, silvery solo violin scales somehow transformed into great music, and the inspired celesta solo providing the icing on the cake.

As I've suggested, there was plenty of colour and surface beauty in this performance, but there was excitement, suspense, and long-term planning too. The run-in to the recap of the main theme in the first movement was stupendous under Sitkovetsky's quick-fire baton. Whereas at a similar point in the finale, the music languished agonisingly.

When Dmitry singled out various members of the orchestra for applause at the end of the symphony he was only reinforcing what the capacity audience had already realised. That CUMS I includes some really top-notch soloists – first flute, clarinet and horn players being outstanding. And in Natasha Sachsenmeier the orchestra has a quite exceptional concert-master. She not only leads pro-actively with an enhanced sense of rhythm, but her firm bowing sets a wonderful example to the rest of the string section.

But perhaps the ultimate compliment to this performance is to say that it definitely changed my view of the music. Maybe because of the ghastly tag of 'socialist realism' that was applied to it, and maybe because Shostakovich used this symphony as a kind of template for his fairly dreary 7th and 8th, I'd come to think of No 5 as a bit dull and turgid. Sitkovetsky's performance actually emphasised its affinity with the gorgeous No 4 –  wild, extreme, and brilliantly scored. Well, it's good to be wrong sometimes!

As if the Shostakovich wasn't enough of a highlight and showcase for university talent, the first half had included a fantastic performance of another 20th century classic, Bartok's Concerto for two pianos, percussion and orchestra. The pianists were Lydia Scadding and Kate Whitley, the percussionists Jude Carlton and Jonathan Pease, and it is difficult to over-rate their achievement in successfully performing this ultra-taxing piece.

Much of the other music Bartok wrote in the late thirties and early forties has rightly become popular with the more adventurous concert-going public. One thinks of the Concerto for Orchestra, the Violin Concerto No 2, and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. But there's a kind of strangeness and exoticism about the two-piano work that maybe reflects Bartok's own rather austere personality. It must also be one of the most consistently dissonant scores ever written and, in some ways, can still seem like the last word in musical modernism!

Yet it never strays into the realms of atonality, it has singable tunes – though I'm not willing to demonstrate right now! – and some wonderfully atmospheric moments, most obviously the beginning and ending of the entire piece, and the sinister slow movement. Above all the concerto has a unique sonority. There is simply no other work that exploits so many varied percussion instruments – including drums, cymbals, triangle, gong and xylophone – in combination with two pianos.

Lydia and Kate, aided and abetted by Jude and Jonathan, put everything into their performance. The writing for the two pianos is cleverly dovetailed so that musical phrases are swapped between the players, echoed, taken up and developed, and it was great to hear the kind of unity and togetherness that can only have come from untold hours of joint practice. Even the sequence of chords that links the slow introduction to the main theme of the first movement went well. This is shockingly difficult to keep together, but somehow L and K managed it.

Almost equally amazing was that the ladies managed to turn their own pages without disaster overtaking them! Seriously, this is no mean feat when two hands are constantly engaged on the keys. But then, as you'll have gathered, this CUMS I concert turned out to be a bit of a miraculous evening.