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Russian State Symphony Orchestra review: A dramatic and moving start to Cambridge Orchestral Series

Cambridge Orchestral Concert Series presents the Russian State Symphony Orchestra
Cambridge Orchestral Concert Series presents the Russian State Symphony Orchestra

The opening concert in this year’s series – a slight “rebrand” of the Classical Concert Series – was a rather topical one, with present-day Russia never far from the news

This programme for the Cambridge Orchestral Series looked back at three of the country’s finest composers, their works interpreted by one of Russia’s oldest symphonic ensembles which was established in the 1930s, pre-dating two of the pieces they were performing on the night.

The concert opened with Khachaturian’s wonderful Masquerade Suite. Originally written to accompany a play written by Russian romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov, the suite provides more than enough drama by itself to not need any accompanying actors.

From the familiar opening Waltz, rousing and full-blooded, the tone was set for a performance of vigour and verve, as conductor Valentin Uryupin flailed, puppet-on-a-string-like, wringing every last drop of emotion from the orchestra through the Nocturne’s tender string sections, the celebratory Mazurka, the beautiful, sweeping Romance and through to the frenetic but controlled mayhem of the finale – Galop.

Next up was pianist Barry Douglas, who movingly interpreted Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 1 in the concert’s centrepiece performance. Written when the composer was, astonishingly, just 17 and 18 (although substantially revised in his 40s), Douglas deftly captured the quick switches in tone,from a moving delicacy through the gamut of emotions to furious, tumbling cascades of notes.

Lastly, we were treated to Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 in D minor. Billed in the programme as “the ultimate political symphony”, this is a work whose back-story couldn’t be more dramatic, having been composed in a climate of fear in Stalin’s USSR, with the awareness that producing art that didn’t conform to the state’s Socialist Realist ideals could literally make it a matter of life or death for Shostakovich, already living under the cloud of Stalin’s disapproval for some of his earlier works.

And despite – or perhaps because of – this, it’s a masterpiece. Intense, with exquisite moments of joy but deeply infused with a sense of peril and paranoia, this symphony from the 1930s felt utterly relevant and contempory. A dramatic, moving end to a thought-provoking, fascinating and fabulous start to this year’s orchestral series.

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