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The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra goes from ‘strength to strength’

Symphony music, violinists at concert, hand close up.
Symphony music, violinists at concert, hand close up.

The City of Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, under its conductor Robert Hodge, presented an all-Russian programme to a packed West Road Concert Hall on Sunday evening (February 11).

The concert began with the brief Festival Overture by Shostakovich, apparently written in a matter of days by the composer for the occasion of the 37th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.

The overture starts with a fanfare, giving way in turn to a melodic section showcasing all the elements of the orchestra. The death of Stalin over a year previously, it has been suggested, may have provided the joyful impetus for this optimistic piece to which the CCSO gave lively and liberating expression.

Arriving next on the platform to join the orchestra for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 came British-Romanian pianist, Florian Mitrea whose performance of this famous work was a mixture of phenomenal technique and ravishing musical intelligence.

From the memorable opening chords which strike into our very souls, to the emotionally overwhelming conclusion, Florian Mitrea sustained his focus, addressing all the nuances of sunshine and shade that make up the volcanic musical personality inhabiting this concerto.

It was a triumph of pianism to reveal so much often obscured by the familiarity that goes with frequency of performance, and in various intervals and passages involving the piano alone it was possible, in Mitrea’s interpretative emphases, to discern elements of Tchaikovsky’s own Romantic heritage, Schumann’s Symphonic Studies perhaps in the first movement, or Chopin’s Études and Preludes in the second.

The CCSO’s accompaniment was superbly managed by Robert Hodge, especially in the finale’s memorable tune where a potential competition for dominance was replaced by a complementary restraint.

The enraptured audience was rewarded with an encore before the orchestra embarked on Symphonic Dances, the last composition of Rachmaninov, originally intended to be choreographed as a ballet work, but remaining until the present day an orchestral piece in three movements.

There is a degree of tension in this rather melancholy work as a whole, reflecting the composer’s struggle between his personal inclination towards the romantic mode of Tchaikovsky and his wish to be acknowledged as representatively modern.

Thus the first movement, an interesting march and Russian in feeling, contained elements perhaps recognisably American at times, with a beautifully performed saxophone solo. The eerie waltz-time of the second movement led on to an up-tempo finale whose terrifying climax, involving many resources from the orchestra’s impressive percussion section, included the bells, a sound so meaningful to the musical core of this composer.

Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov suffered the humiliation of having had these respective works initially disparaged; Tchaikovsky’s concerto by the C19th piano virtuoso, Anton Rubinstein (although he became its later champion) and Rachmaninov’s dances by one of his very early audiences. And we are reminded thereby that music, even the work of the greatest composers, is always at the mercy of the vicissitudes of reception.

The CCSO goes from strength to strength, however, and Sunday evening’s concert was ample proof that a particularly appreciative audience will be eagerly anticipating the next in the current series on March 24.

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