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Review: City Of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s Rite Of Spring concert

Mark Walsh visits West Road Concert Hall on February 4, 2023, to hear the City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert.

Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (52925618)
Cambridge Philharmonic performed at West Road Concert Hall (52925618)

The Rite Of Spring holds an infamous place in the history of classical music, and while stories of riots and fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns storming out of the premiere are perhaps somewhat exaggerated (it seems the audience were more upset with the dancing than the music of Stravinsky’s ballet setting, and that Saint-Saëns wasn’t even there), but there’s no doubt that to fully capture an audience, The Rite Of Spring requires excellent, committed playing, and thankfully that’s what the CCSO delivered at their sold out concert on Saturday evening.

Robert Hodge and the orchestra also have a knack of finding wonderful programming to complement the main works for their concerts, and for their fourth concert of the season the evening’s music began with a piece simply titled Overture. It was the first significant orchestral composition by twentieth century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, written during the German occupation of her homeland. In just six minutes the orchestra gets to run the full range of tempos and dynamics, from a brief Andante section through to the return of the fast pace of the opening Allegro section as the orchestra soars to the climax, with the players rising to the challenge of expressing the thrill and freshness of Bacewicz’s compact overture. Female composers are thankfully becoming more discovered in the twenty first century, and if played to this standard then such works should become part of the repertoire of more and more orchestras.

The Overture also served as an ideal complement to the main work of the first half, Johannes Brahms’ first piano concerto. It also saw a welcome return to the stage alongside the CCSO for the young Russian pianist Alexander Doronin, who gave such a vibrant rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue with the orchestra last summer. The Royal College Of Music student here returned to perform one of Brahms’ first orchestra works, which produce some unusual demands on the solo performer.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge

While concertos often see the soloist playing unaccompanied, alternating with the orchestra, Brahms’ concerto features three movements, the first of which is over twenty minutes and features similar crescendos and soaring moments as the Bacewicz, but where the soloist and orchestra are much more in tandem, with the piano driving the orchestral sound forward. Doronin blended superbly with the other players while still retaining his own identity and bringing out the warmth of Brahms’ colourful harmonisations/

That’s not to say that the soloist is restricted from being virtuosic, and the other two movements offer Doronin more opportunities to demonstrate solo brilliance, crisp and authoritative playing especially characterising the final Rondo movement. We can only hope that his developing career will still afford the young pianist opportunities to unite with the orchestra in future.

And so to the finale, Igor Stravinsy’s orchestral work in two parts which was originally written for the 1913 season of the Ballets Russes. There were no room for dancers in this concert, though, with the extra forces demanded by the Russian composer’s orchestration – a doubling in size of brass and woodwind, and two timpani players rather than one – ensuring that there wasn’t a spare inch of space on the West Road stage. This also created an impressive soundscape that filled the concert hall, almost threatening to engulf it.

While the sound at its peak was vast and suitably menacing, the many chamber-like moments allow the individual sections of the orchestra to shine, and each duly took its opportunity. Stravinsky’s composition also throws up a number of other significant challenges, with radical departures in rhythm, tonality and dissonance from the conventions of its era, but under the secure baton of Robert Hodge each challenge was navigated confidently and the orchestra at all times felt secure and confident in its ever-shifting soundscape.

As the final chords crashed in, applause filled the hall and a number of the audience felt compelled to rise to their feet; testament not only to the genuine quality of the composition, overshadowed in all of the subsequent rumours of drama, but also to the way that the CCSO grippingly brought it to life.

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