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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

Programme: Holst, Rachmaninov, Bartók. Ugnius Pauliukonis (piano). West Road Concert Hall: 12 October 2019

Gustav Holst’s ‘Hammersmith’ (0p. 52) was a challenging, even provocative, piece with which Conductor Robert Hodge had chosen to open CCSO’s new season at West Road Concert Hall on Saturday night. Commissioned by the BBC Military Band in 1930, its first outing was given a cool reception, while a later version for full orchestra was actually booed by its audience.

City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra
City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra

It’s probably true to say that Saturday’s audience was largely unfamiliar with it. But one among many of CCSO’s considerable strengths is Robert Hodge’s inventive programming (this year being no exception) which combines the experimental with the tried and tested.

‘Hammersmith’ is a paean to the London borough where Holst had lived and taught. It’s a composition which probably, it has to be said, requires of listeners a degree of familiarity to reveal its subtleties. The slow Prelude beginning on the bass strings seems to represent the river as core to the locality. But this is no ‘Sweet Thames run softly’, rather is it a turgid, slow-moving artery which gives life to the bustling, even festive, commercial enterprise represented by the scherzo.

‘Hammersmith’ is a brief work in which a lot is going on. There are echoes of the military ‘Reveille’, for example, or a gesture towards the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ recalling, in his daughter Imogen Holst’s notes, Holst’s purchase of oranges from ‘a large woman at the fruit shop who always called him “dearie” when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics’

From the comparatively unfamiliar to a much-loved piano classic: Rachmaninov’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43.

Stepping onto the platform to perform it was Lithuanian pianist, Ugnius Pauliukonis’, a tall, striking figure who brought the score to the piano and turned his own pages.

In fact, this was almost as much an intriguing element to observe as was his excellent performance to listen to. At this level a pianist has to be certain sure of his art as Rachmaninov gives no quarter when it comes to the demands of his great compositions such as this.

At one stage Ugnius (I counted them) was obliged to turn no fewer than 5 pages together to get from one place to another, and in a split second. Amazing! In fact the story has it that Rachmaninov himself, one of the two greatest pianists of the 20th Century, was unable to face performing the finale of this work without a fortifying drink!

The ‘Rhapsody’ requires a high degree of virtuosity, from its Prokofiev-style toccatas (another pianist intimidated by the difficulty of his own 2nd Piano Concerto) to the lyrical. Rachmaninov seems to have shared with Franz Schubert an ear for pure melody, and Ugnius Pauliukonis effortlessly adjusted his technique to communicate the emotional charge of that famous and heart-stopping variation so loved by all.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (19258935)
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (19258935)

Ugnius rewarded the audience’s lengthy applause by performing beautifully ‘The First Snowflakes’, from ‘Winter Sketches’ by Lithuanian composer, Balys Dvarianas, a work which definitely needs to be better known.

The conclusion of the evening was a performance of the celebrated ‘Concerto for Orchestra’, a large-scale composition by Bartók from the last years of his life. Its 5 movements range from the menacing, Andante-Allegro, through a playful ‘Games of pairs’ where groups of instruments perform together and are framed by side-drum taps, an eerie Elegy, an ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’ containing a quaint and very well-known melody begun on the clarinet, to an urgent Finale of great power and intensity. This orchestral showcase drawing on the resources of all its sections was superbly delivered by the CCSO.

From the opening ‘Hammersmith’ to Grofe’s concluding ‘Grand Canyon’ Suite next June, this orchestra’s enticing programme will by then have certainly covered some fascinating territory.


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