Considering the extent to which we’ve all had to live in hiding for much of the last year, it seemed fitting that all three of the works in last night’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert in different ways seemed to be hiding aspects of themselves away from the outside world.

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© CBSO

In the case of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, it was fascinating to see Nicholas Collon’s sprightly and energised actions on the podium answered by the blank, mechanical jauntiness of Stravinsky’s music. Was it, as the composer intended, all meaningless? Certainly, the wind and brass sections of the CBSO conjured up the idea of a machine trying to synthesise the notion of lyricism, treating gestures and motifs as raw bits of stuff to be stretched and pulled, stuck together and pulled apart. Whether or not one heard the resulting exercise in bemused fun (or amused bafflement) as neutral or acidic is subjective, of course, but the oblique chorale at its close was so gorgeous that it was impossible to regard it as hollow.

In his Dowland-inspired Lachrymae, Britten sought to tuck away the original melody such that it would only emerge gradually. This was scuppered somewhat by soloist Lawrence Power performing the tune in isolation before the performance, yet this ultimately served only to reinforce the subtlety of Britten’s treatment. It was rendered diffuse and ethereal by the CBSO strings, sounding so ghostly that it seemed less a composition than an apparition. In such a context, Power’s animated solo line took on a danse macabre quality (with distant echoes of Saint-Saëns’ fiddle). The slow, dissolving transition into the Dowland was executed seamlessly; even though we knew what was coming, nonetheless Britten’s conclusion sounded as a crystallisation of what had gone before, bringing everything, finally, into focus.

Yet the most enigmatic work on the programme was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a piece that ever since its première has caused audiences to bicker about the reality of its sentiments, and the extent to which they’re hidden or implied beneath the surface. Collon’s take seemed to be firmly in the camp of those who believe that, following the debacle and denunciation in the wake of the composer’s abortive previous symphony, the present work constitutes something created, at the very least, under considerable duress. Collon achieved this through an emphasis on its extremes, polarising the symphony either towards flamboyant exuberance or crushed anguish.

It’s a gambit that could easily have failed, turning the work into a caricature of overblown sentiment. However, this approach seemed entirely in sympathy with the composer’s intentions. Shostakovich himself employs frequent polarisations in the articulation of his material, played in very high and low registers simultaneously, making the orchestra sound as if it has been gutted. Furthermore, the enormous contrasts between the two fundamental types of music in the symphony – wild cheerfulness or tragic melancholy – is an even more marked polarisation, one that seems impossible even to begin to resolve. Collon, entirely appropriately, didn’t even try. Thus, the boisterous Allegros were laden with sarcasm and bombast (inadvertently aided on this occasion by some surprisingly ragged playing from the CBSO, clearly an unfortunate side-effect of their inability to play together in recent times), nowhere more so than in the finale, the unchecked ebullience of which had a horrifying implausibility to it. By contrast, the slow music made it hard to imagine how anyone could have believed Shostakovich’s feelings to be even remotely hidden. Going almost beyond words in the extent of its funereal heartbreak, it was a complete turning inwards, full of fear and trembling, to nurse impossibly deep wounds.

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