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S & H Concert Review

Brahms, "Fest und Gedenk - Sprüche Op. 109; Shostakovich, Symphony no. 8. Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink / Bob Chilcott, Friday November 22nd (ME).

This evening of intense music-making celebrated the talents of the students of the RCM in both vocal and instrumental areas, as well as giving those fortunate enough to attend the chance to hear a rarely performed choral work by Brahms and a rendition of Shostakovich's searing masterpiece in which the young players had the privilege of being directed by one of the greatest conductors of our time.

The "Festive and Commemorative Sentences" was dedicated to Brahms' native city of Hamburg, and is full of the sort of grandiose pride and high seriousness which often mark this composer's work. Set for double choir and demanding a virtuosic level of preparation and performance, the RCM Chorus under Bob Chilcott gave it everything they had - in some cases, notably that of the first tenors, rather more than that. The central section, with its complex setting of the text "A House Divided," was sung with particular ease and confidence, and the sombre closing words, from Deuteronomy, filled the hall with a wave of imposing sound; there is nothing quite like a very large body of young voices in full strength yet disciplined by taste and musicality.

The second part of the concert was devoted to a performance of Shostakovich's 8th Symphony, his most overwhelmingly tragic and dramatic work which still divides critics and music lovers; is it really suffused with the composer's bitterness over a brutal regime which had made his life full of fear and loathing, or do we take at too ready a face value the possibly dubious information provided by "Testimony?" With how much caution do we need to regard the composer's own statements that the work is "..optimistic, life -affirming..." and that the conception of it can be summed up as "life is beautiful?" Certainly, the leading music critic of Shostakovich's time felt that it was the "incarnation of the tragic greatness of suffering and the inexorability of the human will," and there is no doubt that it is structured as a C minor to C major work, which might suggest the passing from tragedy to triumph.

A similar dichotomy seems to influence conductors; performances and recordings of the work appear to come down either on the side of an almost Mahlerian, spacious feel in the slow movements coupled with dramatic but hardly shattering Allegretti, or on that of a raw, intense and grim rendition throughout. The most remarkable feature of this performance was that conductor and orchestra totally rejected either extreme, opting instead for a reading that was not only satisfying in its balance but ultimately shattering in its impact. The first movement can seem too spacious, too elongated, so that one loses the thread of its structure, but this was far from the case here; there was a tremendous sense of urgency throughout, and the march-like brass and timpani were unleashed in an almost barbaric eruption, yet the sense of brooding was still there in the strings, where the playing achieved that rarity of fulfilling all the harrowing demands of the music, without ever becoming too suave, as the tempi and general style of some conductors can allow them to be.

The Cor Anglais solo was played with lyric melancholy by Rebecca Kozam, in a solo which achieved what I feel the composer wanted - yes, this is the "hero" making himself known, but it is not a triumphant introduction, rather an ultimately desolate one, and when the clarinet enters the music 's effect is raw and harrowing. Bernard Haitink seemed to be pushing the players towards a headlong rush to the movement's conclusion, and they just about made it; there was that exciting sense of raw emotion, of an almost visceral fright response at the movement's climax, of a kind I have never before experienced. Perhaps this is only achievable with players such as these, of huge talent but as yet undeveloped potential, being given the chance to release some of it at the coaxing of a truly great conductor.

The third movement was an especially visceral experience, with those relentless crotchets driving forward as though towards some inevitable doom, and the strings and reed winds sounding notably edgy, building inexorably into the Largo. The final movement is the ultimate test; are we in the realms of the composer's suggestion of "bright, joyful music of pastoral quality," with a sense of ease and quiet triumph, or are we in the midst of a half-hearted attempt to recover a measure of joy after grimness and desolation? Haitink's reading brushes such considerations aside; the movement was directed and played so as to evoke memories of what had preceded it, but without any undue refinement - there was no sense of comfort here, and even though, especially towards the end, the music held a kind of unironic hope, it was still redolent of the menace and uncertainty of what had gone before.

Haitink and the RCM orchestra provided an experience of the 8th unlike any other; no one could possibly say that the playing had been merely beautiful (although there was beauty aplenty, especially from the Violas and 'Cellos, led superbly by Robin Ashwell and Naomi Williams respectively) but the combination of the players' fresh, passionate attack on the notes, with the conductor's intense, weighty direction, resulted in a performance which fulfilled the most essential criteria of this work. At the end, we were left feeling not only shattered, but also, in Scott Fitzgerald's memorable phrase, "..simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

Melanie Eskenazi

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