“Spot the musical quotation or the style that it borrows from.” It’s not often that a Friday night concert makes good fodder for a puzzle but the pieces in last night’s concert would have been perfect material for a musicians’ pub quiz. The first half works of Vaughan Williams and Tchaikovsky were written in homage to Tallis and Mozart respectively while Shostakovich’s final symphony is full of impish borrowings from the cheekily obvious to the more arcane. Despite the relative youth of both soloist, Andreas Brantelid, and guest conductor, Nicholas Collon, there was a depth of maturity and vision which informed much of tonight’s performance.

Nicholas Collon © Jim Hinson
Nicholas Collon
© Jim Hinson

Collon, with his tall frame and Lisztian hair, bestrode the podium, eliciting a wonderfully atmospheric start from the slow chords that open the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Vaughan Williams uses a double string orchestra with a string quartet which allows the imitative and antiphonal writing to be etched clearly against the different positioning of string instruments. The sound from the first orchestra in last night’s performance was like a sea surging forward with their crescendos which contrasted nicely with the delicate, ethereal sound of the second orchestra who were positioned where the percussion and brass normally sit. Leader Helena Wood made her violin sing while the other members of the string quartet (the leaders of the second violins, violas and cellos) acquitted themselves well. Collon cast this spell of great tranquillity as he allowed this evocative mix of mystic and folksong to meander gently to its conclusion.

Performing the usual, if bowdlerised version by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, cellist Andreas Brantelid gave an utterly compelling account where silky lyricism and exciting bravura were on display throughout. From the opening Mozartean theme, Brantelid was able to use his cello’s spectrum of sonority to great effect with a tone of restrained elegance at first to a warm, pleasurable, rich sound, the musical equivalent of liquid chocolate, as the variations progressed. Skewering the technically fiendish double stops with laser-like accuracy in the cadenza of the fifth variation, Brantelid put his heart into the expressive Variation 6 before launching into the virtuosic final variation. This last movement buzzed along with great panache and excitement, the flute dashing after the cello amidst other musical fireworks. His encore of the Sarabande Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in G major was as simple as it was profound, the gossamer threads of melody speaking directly to the heart.

Written at the end of his life after recovery from a heart attack, Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15 is, without doubt, a mysterious work. Indeed, mysterious doesn’t even begin to adequately describe its enigmatic and recherché depths. Overshadowed by intimations of mortality, the work opens with a youthful drive and vigour and concludes with a dying breath. Is it an attempt to construct some type of symphonic testament? Perhaps, but as ever with Shostakovich nothing is ever quite as it appears. After having spent years enduring the intense scrutiny of the politburo, Shostakovich had perfected the Derridean art of gnomically suggesting something but negating its meaning.

Undaunted, Collon took on the challenge with youthful gusto. There were many things of note: the sharp rhythmic delineation of the first movement, the lugubrious brass chorale of the second movement and the diverse and impressive percussion throughout. Collon’s deadpan approach meant that the opportunity for edgy, dark, sardonic humour was underplayed. In this respect the cheeky “Galop” quotation from Rossini’s William Tell Overture was effective only to the extent of allowing us to imagine what Shostakovich meant but it lacked a convincing interpretation of its own. The most successful moment was the second movement with its haunting flutes and principal cellist, Martin Johnson’s deeply expressive soliloquy. Sadness hung in the air like a miasma with its pregnant pauses and repeated, harrowing chordal screech. As the symphony breathed its last, there was a deep silence, the silence of death.