Classical and Opera Reviews

Charities Philharmonia @ St John’s, Smith Square, London

30 May 2009

There’s never a shortage of music at Charities Philharmonia concerts.

Richard Strauss’ Don Juan had a loyal advocate in Michael Alexander Young, applying heroic gusto and arrogant impetus to the brash and sexually charged score.

The richness of orchestration seemed to be a problem for Young, though, as he was too often tempted to swell extravagantly and never seemed conscious of the fight going on between the music and the rattling rafters.

Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1 is another exotic showpiece and contains some tantalising, gushing music. A wild world of nightsounds was conjured beautifully by Young, mixing an unforgettable blend of esoteric tenderness and lust. Alina Ibragimova’s playing was sweet, but never big enough for the piece. The overall conception of the work by Young was unbalanced, producing almost grotesque contrasts of sound. Perhaps Ibragimova wasn’t always helped by the orchestra, being consumed by their mass much of the time. Even so, the violin has to be the main focus of the work, especially in the fierce cadenza, and no amount of detailed playing can make up for a small sound.

Next came Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. As with Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto, it begins superbly, with restraint and control, but with such a slow infolding, this work has to cascade, or it loses its effect. The orchestra became more unified as the pace increased, but soon lapsed into one of its two fail-safes: whispering or shouting.

But the problem with Shostakovich’s Fifth was ultimately, for me, the composer. The orchestration is obvious, dry and blinkered. Shostakovich’s symphonic mind seems to operate like an angry pianist with only one finger on each hand. The atmospheres and surprises he intends to create in this piece don’t produce the tension or thrills he’s obviously going for, and end up sounding either like empty gestures, or (especially with the harp part in the third movement) just too simplistic. None of this is Michael Alexander Young’s fault, of course, but at the worst moments I was imagining what the strings would sound like if they were replaced by a large choir. That’s not a good sign.

The old fashioned Russian romp in the final movement would be amazing as a B-Movie soundtrack, and Young certainly set the room alight with it, but it isn’t great music. The composer probably wanted to make his usual point of “this is enforced merriment under a dictatorship”, but just as living life under the constant threat of being shot by the Secret Police was a nag and a burden for Shostakovich, his Fifth Symphony is a nag and a burden for me.

The all or nothing approach of the Charities Philharmonia is sensational when the music requires it, but it shouldn’t be the only rabbit in this orchestra’s hat. I wonder how they’d deal with more subtle pieces by Webern or Mozart?

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