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City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, first concert of the season: review

By John Gilroy

City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra
City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

Saturday night’s concert by the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Robert Hodge, reflected almost the complete historical span of European Romanticism, including Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture (1801) and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (1831).

The event at West Road Concert Hall on October 13 marked the start of the orchestra’s new season programme.

The fairly brief Overture (all that tends to be heard these days of a ballet called The Creatures of Prometheus) got the concert off to a sprightly and committed start.

Prometheus is a multi-faceted symbol for rebellion and suffering, as well as for endurance and creativity, and in the Romantic period his legend provided an appropriate mythic context within which to construct and give definition to heroic figures such as Napoleon.

Beethoven’s ballet about the creation of mankind takes its inspiration (as did Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus) from the Prometheus story as a creation myth. A theme from the ballet’s finale was later used as the chief subject in the Finale of the ‘Eroica’ (‘the heroic’) Symphony No. 3 whose original dedication to Napoleon was withdrawn by Beethoven after Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804.

The programme which began with the Overture and concluded with the ‘Eroica’, was thus given a satisfyingly logical structure.

Between the two orchestral pieces came Mendelssohn’s comparatively short piano concerto featuring multi-award winning pianist, Florian Mitrea who appeared with CCSO last season to great acclaim.

Mitrea’s technique is phenomenal, as it would have to be to rise to the challenges presented by the composition’s incredible finger work, and calling for the pianist to be fully employed throughout, without respite almost from the very beginning of the piece.

As well as effortlessly carrying off its technicalities, Mitrea brought to this concerto a particular sensitivity which accentuated all the dimensions of the rather lovely andante, and his sense of timing in the major theme of the last movement was refreshingly new.

As if the demands of the piano concerto had not been enough, Mitrea returned to perform as an encore a fiendishly difficult étude by Liszt (No. 2 in E flat major), one of several such arrangements the composer based on some of Paganini’s violin scores.

Paganini and Liszt – a formidable combination indeed. True encore material, brilliantly executed and leaving the audience agape at such virtuosity. Florian Mitrea’s rapturous reception was richly deserved.

The ‘Eroica’ symphony is a celebration of the Romantic hero whose status, after the disappointment of the hopes he had invested in Napoleon, Beethoven seems to have transferred to the ‘Promethean’ creativity of the artist, in other words, to people such as himself.

The first movement with its proportion and dissonances represents, it seems, a titanic struggle, while the lengthy and absorbing funeral march proceeds inexorably towards something ungraspable.

The CCSO was a model of concentration as this immense work, scored to exploit a whole range of orchestral contributions, lightened its mood in the third movement (with flawless performances from the wind sections), but only to revert to the troubled demeanour of the fourth. The dissonance of the opening allegro fleetingly returns, before the symphony reaches its conclusion, but with a sense still that there is something left to keep pursuing; a truly Romantic quest – ‘effort and expectation and desire, and something evermore about to be’.

This season’s concert schedule could not have had a more auspicious start. The CCSO’s first-rate performances consistently deliver on their imaginative programmes.



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