Snape Maltings alone has the key to Benjamin Britten’s wild parade, and the eponymous Britten Weekends every October rekindle the joy of hearing the local boy’s music in revealing contexts. Each three-day immersion brings a newly bottled concentrate of Aldeburgh Festivals gone by.

Alban Gerhardt, Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales © Snape Maltings
Alban Gerhardt, Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
© Snape Maltings

The 2019 vintage, labelled ‘Britten and Russia’, provided an opportunity for the German cellist Alban Gerhardt to explore links between Britten and Rostropovich as well as Britten and Shostakovich, with the latter’s Cello Sonata and sundry other works paired, variously, with the English composer's Cello Sonata, first and third Cello Suites and, at Saturday evening’s concert with Jac van Steen and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the great Symphony for Cello and Orchestra of 1963.

That use of ‘great’ is deliberate, because while few of the composer’s works have so many detractors there are plenty too who count it a masterpiece (although probably not the audience member who declared loudly at the interval: “Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto tomorrow night. At last some real music”). Why does the Cello Symphony divide people so? Perhaps because of that vexatious title. The name of, say, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra kind of makes sense, but this?

There are numerous passages in which the orchestra shoulders the primary melodic material while the cello accompanies with a thrum-thrum-thrum, in an inversion of their usual concertante roles, but by the Adagio third movement the participants have reverted to type, first with a haunting solo melody that moves subtly between diatonic and chromatic intervals, through to an extended and thoroughly concertante solo cadenza. The best one can say for Britten’s provocative title is that it encourages us to listen with fresh ears; the best one can say for Gerhardt’s flawless account of it is that it will have made many friends for the music, if not that fellow at the interval. The descriptor 'symphony' may only hold up so far, but the German cellist played his part like a one-man orchestra.

Although Gerhardt’s impassioned musicianship sent the cello’s tangy timbre soaring round the brick walls of the Maltings, its volume couldn’t compare to the sonic spectacular of the 23-year-old Britten’s Russian Funeral with which van Steen and the BBC NOW had opened the concert. Horns, brass and percussion resounded with a thrill to compare with Janáček’s Sinfonietta in a six-minute piece that was way too much fun for a funeral dirge. Its insistent, Volga Boatman-esque melody sent shivers down the spine that were very much alive.

From fake Russia to the real thing, from booming Britten to music that all but tore asunder the fabric of the building, van Steen delivered a no-holds-barred account of Shostakovich’s mighty Tenth Symphony. The Dutch maestro’s musical shaping was testimony to his understanding of this repertoire, right from the vast opening movement’s dense, muscular strings that painted a desolate landscape until Robert Plane’s solo clarinet introduced a shaft of life. The ensuing second subject can be steely stuff but Jac van Steen ensured there was clarity amid the murk.

The Snape acoustic is ample, crystal clear and gripping, yet as a medium-sized venue it has built-in limiters against which Shostakovich’s massive score pounded and protested. The second movement, with its oh-so-eloquent marking of Presto inquieto, gave the ears a brief battering, while the ensuing Adagio, awash with the composer’s DSCH motif, sounded positively Mahlerian with its horn calls and edgy waltzes. Van Steen was nowhere more impressive than in shaping the closing Passacaglia: it began with a dark entry on cellos and basses, bleak and raddled with pain, that proceeded to spread like a virus through the entire orchestra. Then the chase began: jaunty at first, then hard-driven, and ultimately a showcase of orchestral virtuosity.

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