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Review: City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra with pianist Aaron Kurz and conductor Robert Hodge.



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Malcolm Arnold, Sergei Prokofiev and Ruth Gipps might have at first seemed strange bedfellows for a concert. In fact, they hold much in common. Each was immensely prolific, while Prokofiev and Gipps showed extraordinary early talent, Prokofiev writing his first opera at 8 years old, Ruth Gipps composing a prize-winning piano piece at the same age.

Each, too, showed talent for incidental music. Ruth Gipps, whose style has a strong cinematic element, wrote dramatic scores for BBC programmes, while the Troika movement from Prokofiev’s orchestral suite for the Soviet film ‘Lieutenant Kijé’ makes a regular appearance each festive season when it’s almost impossible to escape it being played as Christmas music on the radio. Malcolm Arnold wrote substantially for the cinema, including music for 3 of David Lean’s films, one of which, the Rhapsody from ‘The Sound Barrier’ (1952), opened Saturday night’s performance.

Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53541634)
Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53541634)

‘The Sound Barrier’, now more or less lost to sight over the years, was of its time, Arnold’s instrumental accompaniment fitting perfectly to the kind of achievements the film depicted as essentially British (though, in fact, the sound barrier had been broken by the USA five years previously).

CCSO gave full measure to the opening’s thrilling blast, but was then equally appropriate in the quietly expansive sequences which followed, trembling strings and solo flute suggesting both the great heights involved and the loneliness of the test pilots lifting and diving in oceans of air. Dissonant interventions from the brass section pointed up the formidable engineering technology required for such feats with their ever-present threat to life, while the epic orchestration in the finale was typical of the era, its unashamed triumphalism describing a powerful empire still largely intact and in 1952 presided over by a monarch yet to be crowned.

Aaron Kurz, a young American pianist currently visiting the UK, has played at major venues throughout the world and been the recipient of many awards for his performances. Energetically arriving on stage he seemed a slight figure beside the concert grand on which he was to play Prokofiev’s fearsome 3rd piano concerto. We needn’t have worried though. His technique is formidable, and he approached this towering composition with an agility and power that at times made the piano seem a scary instrument.

Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53541637)
Aaron Kurz, pianist. (53541637)

Prokofiev’s 3rd requires extreme ability, and is frequently selected as a choice to play by aspiring young musicians in the finals of prestigious piano competitions. The first movement has bravura elements, such as a solo right hand’s run up the length of the keyboard, chased then by the left hand’s. There are lovely deeply reflective and haunting passages in the 2nd movement, while the 3rd is full of little playful tricks and dissonances, subtle echoing exchanges between piano and cellos, piano and wind – all leading in this masterpiece to the terrific finale, a kind of macabre waltz with a percussive, insistent drive.

Aaron Kurz’s performance was a lesson in pianism. He met the multiple demands of the concerto with equal skill and virtuosity, and his liveliness – he almost blew himself off the piano stool at the end of the 1st and 3rd movements – was compelling, the audience’s appreciation clearly evident in its response.

Ruth Gipps, for so long overlooked and side-lined historically as the victim of gender prejudice, is probably due for a deserved revival. Her 2nd Symphony (she wrote 5) featured in this year’s Proms, and CCSO on Saturday performed the 4th.

CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (53541649)
CCSO conductor Robert Hodge. (53541649)

Gipps, who belongs to a specifically conservative and English tradition, studied at the Royal College of Music under Vaughan Williams, to whose music her own is often compared. She rejected modernism and all aspects of the Avant Garde yet, from the opening bars of the 4th Symphony’s 1st movement, and although she was not exactly a devotee of his music, there are elements perhaps of Benjamin Britten to be detected. The tolling dissonance of the quiet opening recalls the atmospheric Sunday Morning section of Britten’s Sea Interludes, and although Gipps’s music predominantly reflects a pastoral idyll she did write ‘Sea’ pieces throughout her career.

Gipps has a comprehensive command of all sections of the orchestra. There were beautiful solo contributions from the 1st violin and viola in the Adagio and from strings, wind and brass throughout, as well as some wonderful rumbustiousness on timpani and other effective contributions from percussion. Each movement alternated between the quietly reflective and the sprightly, and CCSO’s delivery of this symphony which is essentially restless without settling into anything definitive was excellent.

Congratulations, too, to Conductor Robert Hodge whose concerts in so many ways are always both refreshing and instructive. It’s good to see CCSO back on the platform again at last.

JOHN GILROY



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