Shostakovich’s magnetically attractive Eighth Symphony is considered by many, including guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru, to be his greatest. The work demands huge concentration from performers and listeners, the latter frequently challenged by shrilling piccolos and the robust percussion section featuring an equally shrill xylophone. The hour-long piece dominated another memorable City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra performance, somewhat overshadowing a finely paced interpretation by Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanai of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and an opening tone poem Kikimora by Liadov.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

Despite his unreliability in completing works on time, Liadov achieved popularity for his interpretations of folk songs for orchestra. By 1909, towards the end of his life, he composed the pseudo-spooky Kikimora, scored for a vast percussion section including an obligatory xylophone, creating what Strauss would recognise as a Till Eulenspiegel-esque likeness, the prankster replaced by an equally naughty female house spirit. The CBSO’s percussion section, with Adrian Spillett in charge, grabbed the opportunity to create a lively opening work, with pot and plate throwing noises clearly discernible.

Keeping a watchful eye on one of Japan’s outstanding exports, Akiko Suwanai, conductor Măcelaru allowed her to dictate the pace throughout Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, playing with superb clarity, wit and simplicity to which the audience warmed. Suwanai plays a Stradivarius from 1714, previously owned by Jascha Heifetz, and showed the instrument needed only the lightest of touches to facilitate the continuous action in the codetta and cadenza with some exquisite ricochet bowing. She finished with prolonged trills before embarking on the frenetic coda, completing a masterful performance to which the audience gave typically enthusiastic Symphony Hall recognition.

Shostakovich claimed his Eighth Symphony was a true reflection of the world in which he was living in 1943. His Seventh had been adopted as a symbol of resistance to Nazi aggression. His Soviet masters had anticipated a patriotic work glorifying the success of Stalin’s leadership. However, Shostakovich insisted on demonstrating the darkest depths and despair to which life had descended so refused to write a celebratory work. Thus, after the 1944 première the work virtually disappeared. The last of the five movements is the composer’s darkest movement and the end of the darkest period of his life.

The CBSO’s concentration and commitment was astonishing. The manner in which the tension of the last movement was maintained as it moved from E flat to C major depicted the angst and anguish of a dire situation when others refused to face reality. The first four movements embraced piercing piccolos, deafening brass and vigorous percussion, all requiring careful managing. Măcelaru achieved a remarkable balance by maintaining a very controlled pace, only releasing the orchestra for major outbursts for greater impact. Bassoons, flutes, triangle and xylophone all featured prominently whilst the superb string sections were responsible for draining the audience of any restlessness as the last movement moved towards its mournful conclusion. Măcelaru worked wonders with his baton-free left hand as he encouraged the delicate flute solo as the work ended with the belief that survival is possible, Shostakovich not being convinced that a triumph could be celebrated.