Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, West Road Concert Hall, December 1
Mendelssohn’s popular ‘Hebrides Overture’ opened CCSO’s nautical-themed programme at West Road on Saturday night, our reviewer John Gilroy reports.
This atmospheric tone poem (rather than symphony) was inspired by the composer’s visit to Staffa in 1829, at the very tail-end of European Romanticism in which Scotland and its associated cultural primitivism had featured prominently. It didn’t really matter that authors such as ‘Ossian’ and ‘Fingal’, the eponymous hero of an epic poem, were largely literary inventions. Imagination was everything, but what is now almost certain is that ‘Fingal’s Cave’ will forever be associated with the beautiful melodies Mendelssohn provided for its wild and sea-girt setting. CCSO entered into this memorable music with a confident mixture of strength and lyricism.
The orchestra was joined for Elgar’s ‘Sea Pictures’ (1894) by commended young mezzo-soprano, Julia Portela Piñón. The five (now little-known) poems to which Elgar in this work gave musical expression represent quintessentially Victorian responses to the sea; the ship (as image for the Church) on the voyage of life (‘In Haven’), or yearning for a world elsewhere (‘Where Corals lie’), with its Shakespearean echoes, or others more pessimistically inclined, bringing Hardy or Matthew Arnold to mind.
Julia skilfully adjusted her beautiful voice to the appropriate vocal measure of each, a soft and restrained approach to ‘Sea Slumber Song’ contrasting with the powerful and tempestuous sea picture in ‘The Swimmer’, the concluding piece by tragic Australian poet Adam Lindsay Gordon. Only occasionally was the more familiar Elgarian orchestration recognisably in evidence, with the revelatory side of the composer’s music in these songs intuited and superbly delivered by the soloist.
For the second half of the programme the CCSO had chosen to take on two very taxing and strenuous compositions in Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ (1903-5) and Benjamin Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ (1945).
From its very first performances ‘La Mer’ had represented substantial challenges to orchestral tradition and, at the conclusion, it was clear from the rather exhausted expression on the face of conductor, Robert Hodge, that these challenges are still ones that very much have to be risen to.
At the end of the first two of three movements there is a noticeable, if fleeting, Japanese resonance in the music, so it is no surprise to learn that Debussy was inspired by Hokusai’s famous painting, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, even including it on the cover of the first edition of ‘La Mer’ in 1905.
Britten’s 4 sea interludes are taken from his opera ‘Peter Grimes’, based on poet George Crabbe’s dark tale of cruelty, child molestation and sadism. All four movements are haunting in their own way, but a sense of menace is common to all of them, especially in the infinite melancholy of the third, ‘Moonlight’. This grinding and dissonant piece leads in turn to ‘Storm’, with shrieking strings and thunderous timpani recalling Debussy’s ‘Dialogue of the Wind and Sea’ in ‘La Mer’.
Both were terrific performances from the CCSO, from all sections of the orchestra, exhilarating to watch but even more so, one imagines, to perform.