War and Revolution

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Sunday 15th February 2015 at 3.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andris Nelsons  conductor
Eleanor Dennis  soprano
Simon Callow  speaker

Elgar: Polonia, Op.76 13′
Elgar: Sospiri, Op.70 5′
Elgar: Voix dans le Désert, Op. 77: for Speaker, Soprano, & Orchestra 11′
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) 60′

War, protest, and a great nation on the brink of revolution: officially, Shostakovich based his mighty Eleventh Symphony on the events of 1905 – but this roof-raising blockbuster of a symphony is still thrillingly relevant today. Back in England, Elgar did current affairs a little differently. Andris Nelsons explores some of the deeply moving music that Britain’s greatest composer wrote in response to the First World War.

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

Click here for full review

…     “This movement is all about tension and atmosphere; it’s a vast curtain-raiser to the tragedy that is to unfold. It’s essential that a mood of glacial stillness and tension is established from the outset and then maintained. Nelsons and his players succeeded in this, not least in maintaining the tension. In the second movement, ‘The Ninth of January’ the brutal dispersal of the crowd is depicted. Much of the music is vivid and graphic with Shostakovich calling on the large brass section and the substantial percussion battery – a timpanist and seven colleagues. After a vicious fugal passage for strings, bitingly articulated here, the music reaches a massive climax; quite rightly, Nelsons didn’t hold back on the decibel levels here This climax was a real assault on the ears but it made all the more effective the sudden cut-off where Shostakovich reverts to the glacial stillness of the symphony’s opening – except that now we hear an appalled stillness after the brutality.

 The third movement, ‘Eternal Memory’ is an extended lament for the fallen innocents. It begins with a long, poignant theme played by all the violas. The CBSO viola section excelled here, playing with great expression while Nelsons exerted great care over the moulding of the music. (Rightly, the viola section was singled out for applause en masse at the end of the performance.) This movement, an intense elegy, was played with great eloquence by the CBSO. There was driving urgency in the finale, ‘The Alarm Bell’. Nelsons inspired playing of tremendous bite. The decibel level is consistently high for much of this movement though I can’t help feeling that the composer’s invention is at its weakest here. Yet another immense climax gives way to what is arguably the most poignant moment in the work. Shostakovich returns once more to the material with which he’d begun the symphony nearly an hour ago and from it rises a long, deeply felt cor anglais solo. This horribly exposed solo was played with great distinction by Jane Marshall. As the music picks up once more in vehemence there’s a swirling undercurrent on the bass clarinet. I’ve never heard this brought out so strongly as it was here and the effect of hearing this threatening material along with pounding drums was to emphasise, for me, the darkness in the score. The symphony achieves a thunderous conclusion but the music is not celebratory in tone. Instead, enigmatic as ever, Shostakovich sets up a major-key/minor-key clash, emphasised by the dissonant clamour of two sets of tubular bells. No empty revolutionary triumph is depicted here.

One member of the audience, perhaps deceived, started to applaud immediately but, mercifully, stopped at once while Nelsons and the orchestra held the moment, allowing the bell tones to decay naturally. Then, and only then, was applause for this electrifying performance justified.

The applause was sustained and enthusiastic and that was as it should be for this was a concert hat reminded us once more what a fine partnership there is between Andris Nelsons and the CBSO. We should make the most of it while it lasts.”