Shostakovich & Rachmaninov

Cello Concerto No.1 in E flat, Op.107
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Han-Na Chang (cello)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 5 September, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

A consensus performance often materialises for often-played works. The audience comes to know how the piece ‘should’ sound. Playing and interpretation, even if energetic, become automatic. A ‘new’ interpretation is likely to wake the players up, enabling the audience (including critics) to listen actively again. Sometimes what we hear is a wilful distortion of the score – acclaimed nevertheless, for its novelty. More rarely – but so much more rewardingly – a fresh interpretation gets under the skin of the music, producing a performance that is both true and vivid – more exactly perceived than the drab, spiritually listless affair to which we have become habituated.

This concerto performance was such an experience. In the first place, there was a rare, true partnership between Han-Na Chang, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Tadaaki Otaka. Throughout, they were conscious of the need for balance and co-operation – on several occasions Han-Na Chang looked to Lesley Hatfield, the orchestra’s leader, for her cue. Likewise, at the end of the formidable cadenza, Otaka unobtrusively began beating time before the orchestra re-entered. Throughout, Otaka danced the music – Shostakovich’s masterpiece was quite evidently passing through his body as well as his soul (and his intellect).

Clearly, every bar of the score had been scrutinised. This applies, in spades, to Han-Na Chang’s astonishing solo performance – one of the most exacting for any concerto. She is of slight build and of decidedly non-muscular appearance. Yet she produces a large, rich, warm sound, filling the vast rotunda. With bracing and committed attack, her playing was expressively sensitive and intellectually vigorous. Like the composer himself, she flicked from brittle self-protection to agonised vulnerability in the space of a couple of bars. These volatile changes are often swept by in misguided romantic or impassioned performances.

Otaka matched Chang’s responsive acuity. The pairing was a nonpareil. In the first movement, they found a brittle lightness of touch. It instantly reminded me of the same composer, the man who wrote his exhilarating, quirky First Symphony some thirty years earlier, at the age of 19. The piercing, exuberant precision of that movement’s ending was exemplary. The second movement was more deeply moving than run-of-the-mill performances dream of attempting to convey. Its sorrow flowed into the heart exactly because the performers made no attempt to tug the heartstrings – judiciously, for Shostakovich (while sometimes offering self-pity) never pleaded for sympathy. A further feature of this second movement was that from time to time Otaka found the steady pulse of a grave timelessness, such as Kondrashin did in his Moscow Philharmonic version Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. This was totally unexpected – I’ve not heard it elsewhere – yet characteristic and symptomatic of Otaka’s probing, his insight and his meditation on its spirit. The last movement was vividly playful, dance-like and serious, gathering together themes from earlier in the work.

Throughout the concert, I noticed particularly the fine plucking of the strings – double basses and cellos especially – lending the proceedings a weighty but lightly sprung persistence. A dialogue between weighty, avuncular strings and puffing, teenage winds was exemplary. There was, too, the resplendent horn playing of Tim Thorpe and the rasping, piping family of bassoons – not to mention the timpanist, Steve Barnard. This is a fine orchestra.

At the interval, my inclination was to leave, so great an impact had Chang and Otaka had upon me. The Rachmaninov was vigorously played, with great commitment. It was not, however, in the same league. The music’s elusive spirit remained undiscovered.

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