It’s a slightly topsy-turvy world when a Shostakovich symphony lightens the mood and sends you home grinning, and when a work by Mahler is a filler rather than the main event. It’s also unusual to hear Northern Sinfonia playing full orchestral works by either of these composers, as most of their symphonic output requires much larger forces, so there was much that was new and enjoyable in tonight’s concert, even though there was no obvious connection between the works on the programme.

© Benjamin Ealovega
© Benjamin Ealovega

The first half of the concert was taken up by James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross for chorus and strings, in which the last sentences spoken by Christ from the cross are mixed with other texts from the Roman Catholic Good Friday services, in English and in Latin.

The pain and suffering of the dying man were painted in harrowing detail, right from the bleak opening, with the whispered words of the Hosanna and Benedictus from Palm Sunday suggesting a bitter memory of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. There were harsh hammer blows from the strings for “It is finished”, dry rustling whispers set against a desperate cry for water, and the desolate weeping of the strings as the choir sing the heart-breaking words “All you who pass along this way take heed and consider if there is any sorrow like mine”. There were surprising moments of light, too. The third movement was a reverent reflection on the cross, as pairs of solos rose through the vocal register to end, in paradise, with ethereally high sopranos, and in the declamatory chords of the second movement, “Woman, Behold thy Son!” there was immense pride.

The Seven Last Words places huge technical demands on the chorus, and Northern Sinfonia Chorus rose majestically to the occasion. At several points, MacMillan demands huge unaccompanied cluster chords, followed by a long silence, and then a new entry on an entirely different chord – extremely difficult to do, but every entry was impressively clean and confident, and stayed in tune, and the effect was thrilling. As a singer, I also enjoyed seeing how guest conductor Nicholas Collon adapted his style to communicate effectively with the chorus: it’s a skill that not all orchestral conductors possess, but even from the audience, I could see exactly what he wanted them to do.

MacMillan’s orchestral writing provides an effective complement to the chorus part. A beautiful, meandering violin solo from leader Bradley Creswick accompanied the soloists in their ascent to paradise, and in the last gasps of the second section, a tiny, almost inaudible heartbeat from the double basses. In the final movement, as MacMillan explains in his programme notes, the strings take over from the liturgical detachment, adding a personal response; the keening sobs of this lovely closing passage reflecting MacMillan’s Scottish background.

Mahler’s What the Wild Flowers Tell Me began life as a movement of the Third Symphony, but gained popularity as a stand-alone work, and was performed this evening in Benjamin Britten’s arrangement for chamber orchestra. The opening wind solos, taken at a sprightly tempo, created a refreshing breeze, sweeping away any lingering Good Friday gloom, and thus easing the transition to the vivacious Shostakovich that followed.

Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony concludes his trilogy of wartime symphonies. It was supposed to be a work to commemorate the great victory, following the terror and grief of the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, but Shostakovich pulled away from triumphalism and came up with a surprisingly frivolous work, oozing irony. Collon took the fast movements at a rapid pace, and kept a lightness of touch so that the irony never became heavy-footed. The pompous trombone and piccolo interjections throughout the first movement were so perfectly delivered that I nearly had a fit of the giggles, and throughout the piece it was clear that everyone was a having a lot of fun.

The calmer moments provided contrast, with plenty of beautiful woodwind writing; a wonderfully laid back clarinet solo introduced the second movement, and it was lovely to hear Lisa Osmailowski demonstrating in a lyrical solo passage that there is much more to the piccolo than bird-like chirping. At the other end of the woodwind range, Shostakovich gives long solo to a gentle, unassuming bassoon, when the preceding trombone fanfares had hinted at something more bombastic.

The string section whipped up the excitement as the symphony draws to its flamboyant close, which came with such a large dose of audacious naughtiness, one wonders how Shostakovich got away with little more than a slapped wrist from the Soviet authorities. If the selection of pieces tonight was a little puzzling, there is certainly no doubt that they were played in the right order, sending us home filled with fun. Perhaps it was like Easter day after the gloom of Good Friday.

****1