Xian Zhang and Fatma Said's coming together for tonight’s programme with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Birmingham's Symphony Hall, flanking a selection of Strauss Lieder with Rachmaninov’s The Rock and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor, was wonderfully enlightening.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s The Rock is a lingering example of poetry in motion, and the volatility and charm of the composer’s early work were beautifully layered in tonight’s interpretation by Zhang. Beneath her baton, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was beautifully poised, and the work’s rarely seen colourings of loneliness and temperance came to the fore. The surging dynamism and eroticism of unrequited lust were also admirable. Rachmaninov's climactic musical programme, in part depicting Chekov’s Along the Way, was tremendous in its majesty under Zhang's direction, conducting with great diligence. She wrought from the RPO’s fine musicians a thoroughly disciplined version of the work’s shifting harmonies and changing shapes, although at times it nudged towards clinical.

Fatma Said © Felix Broede
Fatma Said
© Felix Broede

Richard Strauss wrote his huge body of Lieder on and off throughout his life. He did not publish them in any particular order nor did he do so with any overarching purpose. His decision in the end favoured the musician who looks to perform an assortment of songs unrelated by theme. The ‘pick and mix’ is not for everyone and sometimes leads to a programme that feels diluted and rambling; however, tonight’s selection, sung by Egyptian soprano Fatma Said, was not one of them.

Said took a couple of minutes to settle her voice but when she did her eloquence was clearly suited to the nostalgic and brilliantly frivolous melodies of each song. There were occasional drawbacks: she was curiously taxed by some of the high-lying passages, and there were a couple of minor glitches in vocalisation. 

Although beguiling, Said seemed reluctant to expose her voice to heaviness and, as a consequence, she was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. Nevertheless, she powered her way through Strauss’ coloratura flights and although the cutting edge tone demanded of these works was not always quite there, hers was a performance of intimate expression rather than great volume. Zhang's conducting, meanwhile, was a wonderfully refined backdrop to the meditative grace of Said’s storytelling.

The second half of the concert was given over to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony of which his contemporary Boris Asafyev said was, “unsettled, sensitive, evocative music which inspires such gigantic conflict comes across as a true account of the problems facing modern man—not one individual or several, but mankind”. Here was a work that was not given to apologetic understatement and Zhang's “in-your-face” approach worked well.

Each of the four movements was electrifying and as intensely provocative as any work by the Russian. But here was a Fifth with a difference: profoundly heart-on-sleeve stuff, hungry, urgent. It was as though we were reminded after all these years of the real driving forces of the piece: fear, despair, and the air of forced rejoicing. The uncovering of those gems in the seam was solely down to the effervescent Zhang.

What the RPO lacked in emotive engagement it made up for in pin-point dynamism. It is without question a ravishing score but, as the RPO showed, the wonderfully deliberate dialogues and surging high-rise melodies constitute its true worth. 

Some conductors have been known to be ponderous in the final movement and to take the non troppo part of Allegro non troppo too literally. Zhang on the other hand surged through, but her frenzied tempi lost one or two of the players along the way. The brass shone brilliantly although at times there was a tendency for it to weigh down the music. Regardless, the outpouring rivalled the very best of interpretations and all in all this was an excellent rendition. 

***11