Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

JOE CONWAY: ‘after the interval Rachmaninov’s 2nd plunged the audience into a vortex of ultra-romanticism which constantly aspires towards the erotic’.

Joe Conway West Road Concert Hall

20th March 7.30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £16/£14/£8/£5

These days there's a fair measure of agreement among classical music buffs that it's good practice to include some less familiar repertoire in among the tried and trusted favourites when planning a concert.

In particular there's so much neglected 20th century music crying out to be performed and heard. And now that we're a couple of generations away from the heyday of musical experiment in the fifties and sixties it makes sense to look back with an open mind and an innocent ear. 

I guess this was the thinking behind the programming of the CCSO concert at West Road on Saturday night. Two well-known and well-loved romantic works by Sibelius and Rachmaninov framing a rarely heard mid-20th century concerto by Shostakovich. On paper it looked fine – a pleasing mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar, the easy on the ear and the more challenging. Sadly, in practice things didn't quite work out that way.

The problem was that Sibelius's Finlandia and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony are, in their different ways, such fantastically well-written works, whereas Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No 2 is, frankly, a massive disappointment. Of course comparisons are invidious, but both the Sibelius and Rachmaninov pieces offer a sustained musical argument and an ongoing emotional thread that keep listeners enthralled from start to finish. The Shostakovich piece, on the other hand, has a thread so slack that it degenerates into directionless doodling for much of the time.

Having said that, there are two or three points I need to add fairly hastily. One is that the vacuity of musical argument in his Second Cello Concerto isn't typical of Shostakovich's output in general. Just a week ago at West Road there was a performance of his Fifth Symphony which made a case for it as one of the greatest symphonic works of the 20th century. Nor does the fact that this cello concerto was eclipsed by the better-known works invalidate the argument for giving an airing to unfamiliar scores . . .

More importantly still, my criticisms of the Shostakovich concerto are in no way a reflection on the performance on Saturday night. In fact the cellist Guy Johnston gave as expert and eloquent an interpretation as anyone could wish for. His beautiful tone was surprisingly light and open, his playing in the upper register piercing and intense, and his characterisation of the fragmented solo line impeccable.

Guy's passionate playing was backed up with some superb orchestral accompaniment by the CCSO, with honours divided between the dignified conducting of Leon Lovett and the dynamic leading of Andrew Lawrie. And despite my strictures on the piece I'm happy to concede that there were some memorable moments – the cadenza with bass drum punctuations, the horn fanfares at the start of the finale, and some fascinating percussion sonorities towards the end of the piece.

But was I the only one in the capacity audience who wished that the soloist, conductor and orchestra had expended their energies on Shostakovich's incomparably more coherent and attractive First Cello Concerto? (Answers below please!)

The concert had started with Finlandia, which gave the brass section of the orchestra an irresistible opportunity to strut its stuff. The big tune – which is a kind of Nordic equivalent of Land of Hope and Glory –  tugs at the heart-strings but didn't outstay its welcome under Leon Lovett's brisk beat.

And after the interval Rachmaninov's 2nd plunged the audience into a vortex of ultra-romanticism which constantly aspires towards the erotic. Leon's conducting was masterly, and included some voluptuous lingering in the second themes of the first two movements. Again the brass section contributed magnificently, there were memorable clarinet and cor anglais solos, and the unison string passages in the finale raised the emotional temperatire still more. Phew!