Symphony Hall *****
Saturday’s concert ended with orchestra and audience waving joyfully to each other, buoyed by the infectious enthusiasm of principal conductor Kazuki Yamada. Yamada has brought to the CBSO a zest and rebirth in self-belief which has put the orchestra firmly at the peak of achievement.
Indeed, the diminutive, boyish maestro had said as much in his introduction to the second half of this all but packed-out concert, when, working the microphone with an instinctive expertise, he told us, “in the first half we played Beethoven’s Leonore Overture number ONE, then Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto number ONE, and now we are going to play Walton’s Symphony number ONE -- because WE are number ONE, we are the best!”. The affirmative cheers resounded.
Truth to tell, the Beethoven can only have been included for its numeric significance. For all the players’ assiduous care over it (string playing with a chamber-music alertness), it remains a dud piece, evoking substandard Weber.
The Shostakovich was delivered with concentrated engagement, so many colloquies between orchestral sections (violas, Elspeth Dutch’s assertive horn, just two examples) and soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Beginning with a disconcertingly mellow tone, the cellist gradually acquired the requisite “edge” to his performance, assaulting us with repetitious raspings and the energy of his tireless bowing arm. He also had the recourse of producing a glacial eeriness, before the need to replace a broken string necessitated a lengthy hiatus. Kanneh-Mason rewarded our patience with a well-textured pizzicato encore.
And so we came to the greatest symphony composed by an Englishman, Walton’s First. Its genesis was long and painful, blighted by emotional and physical crises, its subtext mirroring these struggles, always closely argued with a cogency to which this superlative account under Yamada responded with taut elan.
Right from the almost imperceptibly ticking life-force of the fraught opening, through the biting malice of the scherzo, the melancholy of the slow movement (the woodwind choir so eloquent here) and on into the ultimate but hard-won triumph of the finale, this gripped from start to finish.
Invidious to single out individuals, but timpanist Matthew Hardy was a almost a continuo presence of many colours, menacing, assertive, marshalling all the action until the most heart-leaping moment in the symphony. We had reached the point of Walton’s composer’s block in the finale, only resolved when Constant Lambert prescribed the writing of a fugue (the programme-note mentions nothing of this advice), and what an exhilarating fugue Walton turned out, crowned eventually by an explosion of extra percussion (second timpanist and all), blazing out after waiting patiently for the best part of an hour.
No wonder we all erupted at the end, orchestra and listeners alike.
This almost made me forget my more-than-annoying start to the evening. Someone in their wisdom has decided to shift the CBSO Information Desk from its time-honoured and obvious spot at the bottom of the stairs in the Symphony Hall foyer, to up in the middle of the floor above. This necessitates a trip up to a higher level to collect tickets and programmes, and then a descent again to the stalls. At the advanced age of some of us, that is an imposition.
And it didn’t help that a misguided steward sent me up to one floor even higher, and time was running out. This is a hapless experiment which needs to be revisited.