Considering tonight's performance celebrated interpretations of a single Shakespeare play, it presented remarkably varied music. On the night that concert venues, theatres and cinemas countrywide were commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death by featuring examples galore from his mammoth output, Birmingham's Symphony Hall focused entirely on Romeo and Juliet. And what an experience it was, both moving and thoroughly enjoyable. The CBSO was in fine spirits under charismatic young guest conductor Lahav Shani

Lahav Shani © Marco Borggreve
Lahav Shani
© Marco Borggreve
Shakespeare inspired more composers than any other playwright or poet, resulting in over 300 works, from Purcell's The Fairy Queen to Adès's The Tempest. The universal themes within Romeo and Juliet, the nuances of human emotion, provided material aplenty for a raft of composers including Tchaikovsky, Prokoviev and Bernstein. Each tackled it in different ways, filtered through their own vision and circumstances, but each produced music that blends the essential ingredients of bitter-sweet drama – conflict, tenderness, suspense, humanity – leading to a tragic ending.

Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was his third attempt at this subject but was still one of his early works. Its substantial introduction opens with solemn woodwind foreshadowing Friar Laurence's fateful involvement then moves into pugnacious, jagged music, the irregular accents conjuring up flashing swords and setting up the conflict with a bang. Brass and percussion, particularly cymbals, were in their element while Shani showed both great enthusiasm and control over the build-up of volume and intensity. Furious bowing from the strings added a visual reference point as you could just imagine weapons flying. The audience was well and truly hooked.

A complete change of colour occurred with the move into the luscious love theme: tempo, dynamic, articulation and melody producing a heart-stopping plaintive contrast with the clash and clamour of the previous scene.  A delicate harp spoke of moonlight shining on Juliet's balcony. Shani urged the players to heights of tenderness, just as much as total involvement in the foreboding of eerie chords and fateful trumpets pealing out the Friar Laurence theme again as the tragedy unfolds. The funeral march coda, prefaced with menacing cello, brought the piece to a carefully-placed, emotionally-charged ending.

While we never learn, neither in Shakespeare's own portrayal nor Tchaikovsky's or Prokofiev's versions, why the Montagues and Capulets are involved in a crippling feud, with Bernstein's take it's a different story. Set in gangland New York and a background of juvenile delinquency, West Side Story's conflict between Jets and Sharks is racially driven, which also gives scope for a rich and colourful array of music styles from American jazz and blues to Puerto Rican rhythms. The other major difference is that the sleeping potion element is abandoned (everyone dutifully accepts it as believable in other versions!) and the heroine doesn't die, becoming instead capable of holding a gun as she's learned to hate. But the spirit remains true to the essence of the Shakespearean source, exploring the pull and repercussions of crazy love and senseless hatred.

Tonight's performance of the Symphonic Dances, the concert suite re-scored from the Broadway show, certainly got Shani dancing, oozing electricity. The audience was swept along in the variations of mood, bookended with finger-clicking drama. Sudden shifts from one style to another were brilliantly handled and really raised the tension. We were given foot-tapping Latin rhythms, hot energy and steamy colour, interlaced with infectious soulful legato lines (in “Somewhere”) set up by a string quartet then passed seamlessly from one section to another. Beautiful solo flute heralded the slow finale, bringing to a close a riveting rendition.

Earlier in the 20th century, Stalin used the prospect of orchestrating Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi as a bait to tempt Prokofiev back to Russia. The emphasis was to be more on the struggle between generations than tension between particular factions, and originally a happy ending was planned! During the 1936 purges the Bolshoi was dissolved so Prokofiev's ballet was shelved, with the truer Shakespearean conclusion restored to its rightful place when it was eventually staged ten years later. Tonight's performance included ten extracts, offering a rich texture of contrasting episodes. The boldness and aggression throughout the conflict scenes once again gave us fast and furious believable drama and menace, but the sumptuous tenderness of the lovers' encounters was particularly affecting.