Words by Jonathan Glen
Tonight the Symphony Hall is witness to a duel between two great Russians. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) is joined by Venezuelan-American pianist Gabriella Montero to take on Sergei Rachmaninov’s stirring 1901 Piano Concerto No. 2. It comes in stark contrast to Dmitri Shostakovich’s devastating 5th Symphony that rails against Josef Stalin’s oppressive regime during the 1940’s. But to prove there is at least variety in the CSBO’s repertoire, Shchedrin’s light-hearted take on Bizet’s Carmen is added to complete an eclectic night.
Beginning with Bizet/Shchedrin, the sleepy, wistful opening soon gives way to Hispanic splendour. The piece exudes passion yet Shchedrin’s influence keeps the tone playful. Romantic themes unfurl, if only briefly, as this bombastic suite teases out the iconic moments from Bizet’s original.
Percussion is also key to this Latin affair, contributing significantly to the comical conclusion. Conductor Michael Seal is a man who seems to feel every moment of every movement but still finds time to jokingly goad his players, followed by reassuring smiles, to get exactly what he wants.
Rachmaninov’s 1901 Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of the composer’s more popular works and it’s easy to hear why. Opening with grand beginnings; the first movement instantly seduces the listener, occasionally threatening pomposity but swooning wonderfully in the maestro’s style.
The second movement swells immensely; raising hearts out of chests, before letting the delicate piano of Montero pluck the heart strings, sweetly punctuated by the wind section. From this moment on David Lean’s Brief Encounter floats through the mind, as this movement features extensively in a meeting of two great romances. The third movement dispenses with the sombre romance to liven up the concerto’s end; soaring themes playing perfectly with Montero putting not a foot wrong.
It’s at this point the virtuoso pianist reveals her love for improvisation, asking the audience to supply her with a theme to base a short solo upon. One hearty member screams out for Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, greeted by a chorus of laughs and a steely resolve from Montero. What’s created is music that could only grace Madonna’s wildest dreams.
Finally Shostakovich’s 5th is begun; sadness and a bleak beauty become the themes of the moment. It is easy to feel the red hammer crushing hopes as the melancholy strings follow by the relentless march of machinery being produced by the able piano.
The 2nd movement echoes a grand ballroom of the Winter Palace as the grandiose pomposity of the regime is mocked subtly by the brave composer. Pain and suffering are conveyed by solemn strings followed by an amazing build in the penultimate Largo section, echoing the long winter endured by Russia. An epic and immediately captivating climax ensues, using the grand horns so loved by the communist party; Shostakovich staying true to the themes he built from the beginning.
But tonight ultimately belongs to Rachmaninov and Montero, however the romance of Piano Concerto No. 2 never relents. The CSBO does full justice to a piece that lets the spirit soar yet reminds us of the sorrow of great passion; a rousing success.
For more on Gabriela Montero, visit http://www.gabrielamontero.com
For more on Michael Seal, visit http://www.michaelseal.com
For more on the CBSO, visit http://www.cbso.co.uk
For further listings from the Town & Symphony Hall, visit http://www.thsh.co.uk