On the face of it, a concert programme bringing together Simon Holt, Shostakovich and Brahms (dressed by Schoenberg) isn’t exactly aiming to establish close musical connections. Yet, the evening turned out to have an unwitting connective thread, exploring the way artists interact with and above all respond to other artists.

Alisa Weilerstein © Harald Hoffmann | Decca
Alisa Weilerstein
© Harald Hoffmann | Decca

In his short 2016 orchestral work Surcos, receiving its UK première, Holt responded to an equally brief text by Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The words explore not just the act of ploughing (hence the work’s title, which translates as ‘furrows’) but also its context, placing it within a deep river valley surrounded by clashing weathers, snow, storms and sunshine all visible in different directions. Particularly striking in the text is Machado’s colour palette, focusing on ash, brown and grey, and it’s this that Holt seems to have responded to most. Earthy sonic hues, bleached and coarse, pervade Surcos, explored via hesitant, even uncomfortable fits and starts amidst strains and occasional bursts of more lyrical material. Over time this developed into an altogether more energetic, robust music, even becoming motoric for a time, but overall the work’s demeanour felt ugly and remote, making for an alienating experience.

By contrast, Schoenberg’s response to Brahms’ G minor Piano Quartet could hardly have been more in-your-face. The world in 1937 may not been crying out for a Technicolor expansion of Brahms, but Schoenberg evidently thought otherwise, creating his orchestral rendition as a way of ensuring the piece was heard more often and to obviate the issues caused by being “badly played” by loud pianists. How ironic.

The CBSO’s performance brought to mind Toscanini’s hefty re-orchestrations of other composers’ music as well as Copland’s expansion of his own Appalachian Spring. The scale and swagger of Schoenberg’s version were unavoidable – Ilan Volkov could hardly have played them down, even if he had wanted to – but it was impossible not to be aware that these were not the authentic clothes for Brahms’ material. The opening of the work suggested a grand Romantic symphony, but the fundamentally different approach to both the handling and the juxtaposition of ideas continually clarified its chamber music origins. As a consequence, the orchestra sounded ungainly and overweight, the musical structures were a muddied mess, and the work’s atmosphere became choked, unable to breathe. Volkov and the CBSO’s ebullient enthusiasm at times won through, particularly in the grandiosity of the third movement and the overblown insanity of the final Rondo. Yet only on the most superficial level did the work hit its mark; the rest was all histrionics and hysteria that, by the end, left one gasping for air and desperate for silence.

The concert was saved by a display of amazingly raw emotional power. Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 2 ranks not only as one of the composer’s greatest late creations, but also one of his most taxing, from both a technical and psychological perspective. The artists responding to artists connection I mentioned at the start manifested in the work between Volkov and the orchestra (here becoming a single entity) and soloist Alisa Weilerstein. She cut a plaintive, almost reluctant figure at first, only slowly rising to the opportunity to speak, but even now surly and growling, always in apparent pain. The response from the orchestra was a conflicted one, sometimes matching her mood but more often seeking to shake her out of it, primarily through brisk tempi and defined metres. However, to Weilerstein such notions were mere myths, playing her cello as if in a daze, yet the obvious raggedness of the performance that resulted from this – Volkov almost seeming tetchy in his desire to push the music on – worked wonders from a dramatic perspective. Furthermore, on the occasions when the cello accedes to the orchestra and becomes pulled along by its rhythmic momentum, Weilerstein’s actions were almost robotic, a literal going through the motions.

It was this unrelenting reality from Weilerstein – playing as if possessed – that turned the work into something akin to a fever dream. Some of the most telling passages were the cello’s passing ‘duets’ with single percussion instruments, producing the most violent pizzicati and agonised double-stops (with so much vibrato that their pitch was practically erased) as the bass drum pummelled it from the side; furiously bowing like a crazed exercise of sawing over the sustained tambourine tremolando; propelling along with blind fury to stern reports from the snare drum. Here was music-making of terrifying authenticity, in which the work’s enormous pair of climaxes provided nothing even approximating a release. Weilerstein entered Symphony Hall weighed down, and by the end of the concerto seemingly none of that weight had lifted, encapsulated in her final sustained note, distressingly articulated like a grim, grey laser beam. It may have lacked catharsis, but rarely did a performance more desperately need to be said.