The evening’s music started with a piece I hadn’t heard before: Johan Svendsen’s Carnival in Paris, Episode for Orchestra Op.9. It had elements of many different Romantic styles and at numerous moments I found myself expecting to slip into the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet from the suspense; at other moments there were beautiful soaring melodies I would almost associate more with impressionists like Ravel. Yet a lot of the music seemed to me like a diluted pastiche of other, better Romantic style: it had a very “wartime radio broadcast” feel to it. The orchestra performed well with the mostly mediocre material, albeit with some out of sync playing in the violins, but I couldn’t blame them for not being particularly enthused to practice the piece!

The next performance saw Nikolai Demidenko’s rendition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3, a piece which seems to almost start as though resuming in a recapitulation of an imagined earlier exposition, diving straight into the melodic meat. There was excellent balance from the orchestra and solo part throughout, with more contrasting characters in the last movement expertly expressed. Demidenko’s performance was characterised by a wonderful blend of technical perfection and sensitivity and though I must admit that on the whole, piano concertos aren’t really to my taste, I found this one very enjoyable indeed. There were moments of great lyricism and some of percussive vigour, which was capped off by a tremendous finale, quite in contrast to the understated character of the opening.

The orchestra itself was set up in what seems to have become the most popular formation, with violins either side of the conductor creating a sort of stereo effect, but what I have never seen before were the Double Basses set up behind the brass, which would surely be quite a challenge to pass. Though the orchestral set-up worked well for the concerto, the balance was less than ideal for Shostakovich’s powerful writing in his Symphony no. 5 as the trumpets stuck out as much louder than even their brassy comrades. The basses must have also felt that their playing was a little futile in tutti sections, trying to project to the audience through the mighty brass in front of them. On the other hand, I felt the way the harp came out of the texture in the first movement was particularly successful, as was the balance between serene and aggressive passages of the music.

The second movement saw conductor Terje Mikkelsen effecting great contrast in the orchestra between aggressive, driving figures and playful, almost satirical moments of chamber dance music. Given the symphony’s subtitle of “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”, it would not seem unreasonable to interpret this music as a subtle spite on the authorities by the composer. Whatever it’s deeper meaning, the character of the music was wonderfully brought out in some of the most enjoyable tunes of the piece.

The incredibly sombre and moving opening to the third movement was rather unfortunate due to some intonation issues in the second violins but the character just about shone through to give both expressive and menacing qualities. I was impressed with the cellos in their approach to some of the more expressive passages, reflecting the tone quality of all the strings towards the end of the movement.

Diving straight from the serene ending of the third movement to the powerful opening of the last movement, I was a little disappointed. Although the character of the music was there, it wasn’t quite fast enough to get that frantic Shostakovichian quality that is so exhilarating. When the string players are right on the edge of their capabilities it pushes the music into a whole new realm. Despite this, I was impressed by the approach of the players and the conductor with strong and committed playing from all areas of the orchestra. The result was probably the best performance I’ve witnessed of such a work in such an unforgiving acoustic as the Colston Hall.

Simon Birch
27th October 2010