Prokofiev Violin Concerto no. 1, Shostakovitch Symphony no. 7

Cambridge students play Soviet music just like real repressed citizens for TIM COOMBES. Strange…

classical music cums cums 1 cums i CUMS Symphony Orchestra CUSO josie robertson Martin Yates opression Prokofiev prokofiev violin concerto shostakovitch soviet russia totalitarianism west road West Road Concert Hall

West Road Concert Hall, Saturday 3rd March, 8pm,  £16(£13)/£5


CUCO, CUSO, CUMS etc… Distinguishing the University’s various musical groups entails a strong command of acronym. Last night, Cambridge University Music Society Symphony Orchestra (CUMS SO for short) took their turn to play in front of the West Road masses. Josie Robertson, a recent NatSci Graduate, opened the programme as the soloist in Prokofiev’s fiendishly difficult first Violin Concerto.

The opening movement’s impassioned lyricism resounded immediately through Robertson’s sinewy tone and firm articulation. She could draw in the audience by power of concentration alone, it seemed. Our eyes were pinned to her bow as intently as hers were. She faced her principal challenge, though, in the second movement’s demonic cackling and whirring runs. But formidable technique, together with an immaculate sense of melodic weight, ensured a controlled interpretation.

Remarkably, the orchestra was slightly too quiet and the effects supporting the soloist occasionally underpowered. Moments of accomplishment stood out, however, particularly in the final movement: the way the strings paced the strange, trudging opening, for instance. Conductor Martin Yates balanced the ethereal ending superbly too. Robertson’s high trills shimmered just audibly above the gently rippling woodwind scales; a fitting end to a highly impressive performance.

The second half showcased Shostakovich’s enormous Seventh Symphony; a work which requires immense concentration and physical stamina. These were first tested in the opening movement’s agonizing ten-minute build-up from minute, plodding pizzicato to brazen, terrifying march. Three times the orchestra appeared to burn itself out prematurely, and each time (with the help of the offstage brass) bow-pressure and lung-capacity somehow increased. It was definitely goose-bump territory.

The real challenge of the piece, however, is to maintain the tension in the middle movements, without wearing out lips and fingers for the symphony’s climactic end 45 minutes later. Unfortunately, CUMS SO only partially managed it. Clarinets aside, woodwind intonation and control faltered in crucial passages. The violins also faltered in their long, lonely climbs above the texture. Yates was perhaps at fault here: his attempts to constantly re-energize the sound often sacrificed gestural clarity.

But there was no lack of concentration and commitment in the ending’s straining ferocity. Resisting self-indulgence where conductors often relent, Yates drove the tempo to the final chord. The double basses, fighting away at the bottom all night, somehow found an extra gear. The real power came, as always, from the brass who screamed away with ever-increasing intensity. Cambridge must hold an international record for number of highly competent horn players in a University.

Why do dark, grim pieces composed from the depths of Soviet Russia fare so well in Cambridge concert life? Perhaps it says a lot about the average student’s work-load. But, however disconcerting the affinity between CUMS musicians and repressed citizens of totalitarianism, it made for a great evening of music.