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City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra open new season with outstanding performances of Stravinsky, Wagner, Mahler and Respighi

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Julien van Mellaerts
Julien van Mellaerts

City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra (CCSO) opened its new season at West Road Concert Hall with outstanding performances of Stravinsky, Wagner, Mahler and Respighi.

The CCSO under the sure hand of its conductor Robert Hodge opened a new season on Saturday evening with a brio performance of Stravinsky’s original 1911 version of Petrushka.

Stravinsky was one of the foremost influences on George Gershwin, and one fancies one hears echoes of the famous ‘Russian Dance’ (the tune everyone knows) in An American in Paris, the orchestral piece which brought last season’s CCSO series to a conclusion.

As with Mahler, who would appear later in the programme, there is a strong core ‘folk’ element in Stravinsky, finding its expression here in a relentless sequence that exploits the whole range of the orchestra’s powers, with music often sprightly and effervescent, at times strange and sinister. The CCSO took this extremely challenging work in its stride.

After the interval came Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, with just a suggestion of its famous tune, now popularly known as Here Comes the Bride.

Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer was next, an allegorical journey of the soul in the manner of Schubert’s Winterreise, and reflecting a melancholy episode in Mahler’s own life.

Each of the four movements portrays, with varying levels of intensity, the moods of the solitary Romantic wanderer who, a descendant of Goethe’s Werther, wrestles with despair over an unfulfilled love and its loss. Brief intervals of happiness in the natural world are not enough to dispel the wayfarer’s frustrations which build to an almost unbearable physical agony in the third movement’s disturbing, ‘I have a glowing knife.’

Performing the verses was young New Zealand baritone Julien Van Mellaerts who already has a string of prizes to his name. And no wonder. The beauty of his delivery and his ability to enter into the hero’s predicament and make it real, captivated the hugely appreciative audience.

The concert concluded with one of the three symphonic pieces Respighi based on Roman themes, The Pines of Rome, evocatively illustrated by Lesley Fotherby on one of the CCSO’s ever stylish programme covers.

The lively and ebullient opening movement, concludes with four or five discordant and troubling brass interjections leading on, appropriately, to Pines near a Catacomb, which builds to a crescendo then sinks, as it were, into the fearful burial places below.

The Pines of the Janiculum is a night piece containing, on Respighi’s request, an actual recording of a nightingale, not just a musical representation of birdsong as to be found, for example, in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The CCSO beautifully captured the serenity of the piece with its tender strings and some lovely oboe and flute solos, before the nightingale’s song was suddenly replaced, in stark contrast, by The Pines of the Appian Way, with emphasis on Rome’s imperial past.

But all this imperialism and militarism, though displayed with astounding power by the CCSO, was somehow, as one listened, rendered empty and stupid in comparison with the natural beauty that had preceded it – no doubt Respighi’s intention.

But what an enjoyable evening. The CCSO is a terrific orchestra and one eagerly anticipates its next outing on 9 December.

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