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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra: West Road Concert Hall: 23 March

The CCSO presented a mainly Russian-oriented programme in West Road Concert Hall at the weekend.

First was one of the two frequently played tone poems of Liadov, this one based on ‘Kikimora’ (1909) a malign folk figure of Eastern European origin, the suffix of whose name, ‘mora’ is akin to the suffix of the well-known ‘nightmare’ incubus creature of legend.

As in his other tone poem of the same year ‘The Enchanted Lake’, performed by CCSO in 2017, Liadov brings a charged atmosphere to proceedings with a menacing moody introduction that develops into flitting lively exchanges between flutes and woodwind, matching the elusive movements of this worrying sprite-like creature. The fast-paced conclusion builds to a climax when, with a final ‘twitch’ on the piccolo Kikimora is off and the brief work is over. The CCSO delivered a most engaging performance, convincingly accentuating the contrasts between the two sections.

Next, in complete contrast, the monumental 3rd Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov (also composed in 1909). To play it in Cambridge on Saturday night was the young, multi-award winning Russian pianist, Victor Maslov.

This concerto has forever been regarded as one of the most formidable and technically challenging of all. It requires enormous feats of power and endurance, allowing the pianist little by way of respite throughout its 3 demanding movements.

Along with its notorious difficulty, the concerto’s history in performance is equally legendary. Famously, Mahler (last of the German Romantics) conducted the New York Philharmonic with Rachmaninov himself (last of the Russian Romantics) at the piano in 1910. What a thought! And then, from the 1930s onwards, came the demonic performances of Vladimir Horowitz who always laid claim to ‘Rach 3’ as his own.

This said, one might expect any performer inheriting such a legacy to be duly intimidated. But if Victor Maslov had any such qualms, his staggering delivery revealed absolutely no cause for them. A tall figure with a natural modesty and restraint, he approached the awesome work with a level of virtuosity that left his audience agog.

Maslov’s approach hadn’t a shred of the self-indulgence which can sometimes mar performances of Rachmaninov. He demonstrated ability to create a seamless weld of precision and passion and evoked the primary tune with all its variations through the movements so as to bring out the organic and unified nature of this particular concerto with apparent effortlessness.

Of course the audience called loudly for more, and was rewarded with one of the studies from Rachmaninov’s Études-tableaux, played with the pianist’s exquisite sense of timing and a beautiful contemplative unworldliness.

The orchestra then turned to Respighi’s symphonic poem, the ‘Fountains of Rome’ (1914-16), a short work full of charm and capturing the spirit of the landscape at intervals of the day to which four celebrated Roman fountains seemed to Respighi to be essentially fitted. Particularly effective was the evocative sunset hour reflected in the slow modulation of the music to the accompaniment of the characteristic ‘bells’ of Rome.

Finally came the celebrated ‘Firebird’ Suite (1919), a work originally intended by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for Liadov, but which, when he failed to deliver, Stravinsky accepted and ran with. The rest is history. Stravinsky won instant fame, and in CCSO’s striking performance one could see why.

CCSO was particularly alert to the work’s extraordinary rhythms and orchestral colours, especially in the crashing brassy conclusion, bringing out Stravinsky’s instinct for portraying the letter and spirit of earlier musical ages, such as Russian folk traditions, through the sounds of the present.

In all, this was a splendid and unforgettable evening of musical compositions at once both diverse and related.


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