CBSO Review: Shostakovich’s Fifth

Simon Hale watches the continued return of the CBSO to Symphony Hall.

Live music returned to Symphony Hall on the grand scale after months of lockdown with one of the greatest works of the 20th century.

Some eighty musicians filled an extended stage while remaining socially distanced for a thrillingly powerful performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

“It’s wonderful to be making music again among real human beings,” said conductor Nicholas Collon (pictured) in his introduction, adding that he could “name very few ensembles at this time who are able to make music of this scale on such a large stage with so many players”.

The Fifth Symphony was composed in 1937 as what Shostakovich called “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism” after his recent opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk had been banned by the Communist Party because of its avant-garde nature and focus on individual freedom.

Yet the composer is believed to have employed the symphony’s traditional classical form and its emotional and triumphant content ironically so that it could be interpreted both by the authorities as a return to the fold and by the audience as a lament for Stalin’s reign of terror.

The response to the premiere in Leningrad was ecstatic – as was the applause in Symphony Hall to a performance that helped signify another kind of freedom.

In its move from despair to triumph, you could hear a pin drop during the Largo, with its gentle solos from the woodwinds and strings bringing a tear to the eye. By contrast, the almost relentless brass fanfares and percussive hammering in the symphony’s finale, including the repeated thud of a bass drum, kept the “triumphant” coda ringing in the ears.

The other works in programme included a beautiful performance of Benjamin Britten’s Lachrymae, based on a 17th century song by John Dowland. Originally written in 1950, Britten arranged it for viola and strings 25 years later. Unusually the theme is developed after a series of variations (rather than the reverse) but viola player Lawrence Power provided an added treat by playing the solo theme by way of an introduction – and sonorous it was too.

The one-and-a-half-hour interval-less concert also featured an exclusive turn for the wind and brass sections with an eight-minute performance of Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Collon called it “music with no meaning” but it was thoroughly enjoyable and meaningful if only for being live.

CBSO live performances continue on June 3rd with matinee and evening performances of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2 and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 5 (Reformation). Details from