Birmingham Philharmonic review


Elgar Hall, University of Birmingham ****
Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture might be fustian, but it's exciting fustian, and deserves a performance as committed as the one it received in this all-Russian programme from the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra.
Conductor Michael Lloyd shaped the opening chant eloquently, creating such a contemplative atmosphere from strings and woodwind that the dramatic entry of the full orchestra came as a genuine jolt. Heavy brass were magnificent, folky rhythms were crisply turned, and the famous unison descending-scale string rallentando ground down under brilliant control.
But the spectacular, indeed notorious, conclusion proved something of a damp squib. What should have been triumphantly tolling bells were scarcely audible, and there were no cannon, as some orchestra members lamented to me during the interval.
After all the clamour, the Suite from Khachaturian's Masquerade came as lilting balm, its charming dances, tender interludes (what a lovely duet between concertmaster Charlotte Moseley and her clarinettist father), and subversively slapstick Galop all a joy to the ear.
"Subversive" is an appopriate word, as not long after this music's composition naughty-boy Khachaturian was denounced by the Committee of Soviet Composers for his allegedly formalistic, unedifying scores. So was Prokofiev (he would have been an apt inclusion here), and so, too, was Shostakovich, whose awesome Symphony no.11 concluded this concert.
This is one of the most powerful symphonies ever conceived, depicting as it does the brutal massacre of peaceful protestors in St Petersburg's Palace Square in 1905 (this is Malcolm Arnold's Peterloo Overture writ very large). It sets a glacial context, strings and woodwinds sustaining icy chords, individual winds contributing puny-sounding revolutionary songs, and erupts into jagged brutality. Eventually comes an heroic defiance.
Lloyd and his players were heroic indeed, not least the crucial percussionists during this hour-plus work. The viola section sang a mournful tune in the adagio, and Lloyd quite rightly found a Mahlerian attack for the march opening the final movement.
And how encouraging to see youngsters within the ranks of the BPO. The orchestra deserves some kind of educational award for that.
Christopher Morley

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