Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

JOE CONWAY : ‘Just looking around at the players’ evident enjoyment of these great tunes should make one reluctant to add to the snobby criticisms that have always been levelled at Tchaikovsky.’

Bartok Beethoven Brahms Coriolan Elgar Leon Lovett Mahler Ruth Palmer Stravinsky Tchaikovsky west road

15th May, 7.30pm at West Road Concert Hall. £16/£14/£8/£5.

A Beethoven overture, a Brahms concerto, and a Tchaikovsky symphony. In terms of planning a classical concert programme that's about as traditional as it gets. A message that was reinforced in this CCSO concert by pictures of the three composers, glaring up from the pages of the programme book like a trio of old testament prophets,

Personally I have no problems with traditions of this kind. The formula overture-concerto-symphony may be as old as the hills but it provides audiences with a coherent and satisfying concert structure. As for the content, I can't imagine many people complaining about the inclusion of works by these three great masters – certainly not the capacity audience at West Road on Saturday night. 

Yet I must confess to having a nagging feeling myself that it's maybe not quite kosher to programme music by exclusively 19th century composers. In recent years classical music fans have grown to love the music of late romantics like Elgar and Mahler. Not to mention subsequent generations of 20th century modernist gurus like Bartok and Stravinsky. No one born after 1840 got a look-in on this programme, but after all there are plenty of occasions when they do.

And at the end of the day, if you're looking for attention-grabbing drama and emotions that range from the stormy to the serene is there any better curtain-raiser than Beethoven's Coriolan Overture? One of the functions of the overture is to give the musicians an opportunity to warm up and get used to the playing conditions. And it was great to hear a discernible improvement in tightness and attack during the ten minutes of the piece. Conductor Leon Lovett went for a measured, monumental approach from the word go, but there were a few ragged entries first off. His meticulous conducting of the final plucked string notes however ensured total togetherness.

After Beethoven came Brahms. Coincidentally there had been another performance of his Violin Concerto at West Road less than a week ago – so here come the inevitable comparisons! Ruth Palmer's playing last Sunday had been memorable but unpredictable, even perverse at times. Alexandra Wood on the other hand gave a performance that was much more conventional. Playing with assured accuracy and faultless intonation her incisive silvery tone breathed life into the three great tunes that follow one another through the first movement. The cadenza was perhaps not quite as intense as it had been last week, but the slow movement and finale received really convincing performances, as mellow and effervescent as one could ask.

One less happy feature that both performances of the Brahms had in common was a noticeable tension between soloist and conductor. Surprising though it might seem in someone of Leon Lovett's experience and gravitas, he often appeared to be pushing the music forward, just when Alexandra needed more time or wanted to linger. It goes without saying that conductor and orchestra must take their cue from the soloist on these occasions, whatever their own preferences.

And so to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony – or Tchaik 5 as musicians tend to call it. Conductor and orchestra were at their best in most of this piece, the first movement in particular starting with beautifully precise rhythms and perfect phrasing from the clarinets and lower strings. If the second movement was too busy for comfort – and for the famous horn solo to make its full impact – this was made up for by the delightful waltz and the stirring finale. To use an over-worked word, parts of this symphony may well be cheesy. But just looking around at the players' evident enjoyment of these great tunes should make one reluctant to add to the snobby criticisms that have always been levelled at Tchaikovsky. And, as I said, I didn't hear anyone complaining . . .