The CBSO play two ‘Fifths’ – Prokofiev’s epic symphony and Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★

The premiere of Prokofiev’s fifth symphony in 1945 was the apogee of his career in Soviet Russia. The tide of what the Russians call ‘The Great Patriotic War’ had turned, with the Red Army starting the march that would end in Berlin with the Nazis routed. Prokofiev was conducting, waiting momentarily for a pause in the distant artillery fire before the downbeat came and one of the twentieth century’s greatest symphonies began. What an occasion, what a work. It’s not an easy one to conduct. Prokofiev called the first movement ‘Andante’ and the third ‘Adagio’, but gave them metronome marks specifying speeds respectively slower and faster than the designations would suggest. Eduardo Strausser, like many conductors, settled for a compromise, a trade-off. It saw the first movement’s grandeur and mystery, of the music gradually emerging like sunlight cutting through the morning mists, diminished but kept it flowing; the third was often beautiful – luscious CBSO string playing – but lacked momentum. The young Brazilian got the scherzo just right. This is a return to Prokofiev’s Parisian enfant terrible style – spiky rhythms, pounding percussion, zany twists and turns. Great fun, played to the hilt. The finale’s final few minutes – the knees-up which qualifies it for the ‘Allegro giocoso’ appellation – was splendid too but the preceding episodes, covering a wide emotional range, remained just that. The discrete sections were never stitched into a convincing narrative by Strausser.

The concert opened with Wagner’s Prelude to Act 1 of ‘Lohengrin’ for which the words “sublime”, “heavenly” and their various synonyms could have been coined. A fine performance this, majestic horns and brass and silvery ethereal strings. Strings were the problem in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. While batteries of brass and wind exited after the Wagner all but a handful of strings remained. Strausser should have removed some more of the back ranks giving a chance for the much-reduced wind section to make an impact. Often I could see the oboe and clarinet puffing away without being able to hear a note – balancing the orchestra is the conductor’s responsibility. The French soloist Cédric Tiberghien’s playing was pleasingly direct and unaffected, crisp and clear if not especially imaginative. I doubt if he was helped by the trio of mobile phones ringing during the Adagio. A matinee audience with a median age of around 79 ought to know better.

Norman Stinchcombe

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