Funeral Song, Op.5
Violin Concerto No.1 in A-minor, Op.77
Lithuanian Folk Music*
The Rite of Spring
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
CBSO Youth Chorus*
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 27 June, 2018
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
The CBSO’s final programme of its 17-18 season centred on Russian music, opening with Stravinsky’s Funeral Song (1908). This memorial to Rimsky-Korsakov has been widely heard since its discovery at the St Petersburg Conservatoire after being presumed lost for over a century. Less radical in conception than its composer remembered, it is best heard as a study in that slow-burning late-Romanticism such as Stravinsky soon abandoned. Harmonic elements derived from Scriabin open-out the expressive range of a piece that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla gave with telling understatement (its initial climax not pre-empting what followed), with due appreciation of that ritualistic quality soon to be a hallmark of Stravinsky’s music in the subsequent half-century.
There is nothing stylistically tentative about Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto (1948) – unheard for seven years in the wake of the notorious anti-formalist campaign, but thereafter established among his most representative works. Nicola Benedetti has performed it often, but there was no sense of routine – even if the searching introspection of the opening ‘Nocturne’ was a little matter-of-fact and coordination with the orchestra in the ensuing ‘Scherzo’ approximate. The ‘Passacaglia’ had eloquence to spare as Benedetti unfolded the successive stages of its intensifying design with affecting poise; after which she invested the lengthy cadenza (almost an extemporisation on earlier themes) with cumulative energy that spilled over into a headlong take on the ‘Burlesque’.
A commanding performance, then, and there was no tailing-off of impetus in the account of The Rite of Spring (1913) following the interval. While never underplaying its visceral quality, Gražinytė-Tyla was concerned to stress the harmonic astringency of music whose recourse to folk music is as radical as it is undeniable. It was the slower and more evocative sections that were most successful, though there was no lack of impact in the latter stages of Part One – culminating with a ‘Dance of the Earth’ of remorseless intent.
The inward initial stages of ‘The Sacrifice’ evinced playing both sensitive and fastidious, and while the more episodic nature of this second half was never dispelled, Gražinytė-Tyla ensured its constituent sections were vividly characterised on the way to a ‘Sacrificial Dance’ whose local excitement never obscured its long-term rhythmic trajectory, duly emerging as an apotheosis of streamlined energy that the CBSO conveyed with playing of unstinting virtuosity and resolve.
Beforehand, the CBSO Youth Chorus had afforded an illuminating context with renditions of Lithuanian folksongs such as Stravinsky drew upon when writing his seminal score. Vibrantly sung (and, in two instances, nimbly choreographed), the scene was set in engaging fashion – though it was a pity that Gražinytė-Tyla’s intention of segueing from these songs into The Rite was nullified by clapping. A pity, too, that this sequence is not included in the second outing for this concert, on the afternoon of June 28.