Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Act 2 – Scène, Op. 20 No. 10 (1875-6)
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 126 (1966)
Weinberg Symphony No. 3 in B minor, Op. 45 (1949-50, rev. 1959)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello, above), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Charlotte Politi (below)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 16 March 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
This evening’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra should have been a Weinberg double-bill but the last-minute indisposition of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (having tested positive for Covid) brought to the podium one of the orchestra’s assistant conductors, Charlotte Politi.
Something in the programme had to give and that was only the second hearing in the UK for Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony, an incisively neo-classical piece long familiar to enthusiasts through the Melodiya recording issued in the 1970s and which, while it lacks the gravitas of later symphonies, is never less than engaging in its own right. Instead, the programme began with the ‘Scène’ from Act Two of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (itself the opening number of the suite) – its fraught pathos enticingly realized, if making for an all-too brief curtain-raiser.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason was still present for Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto, among the first products of his final creative period and one of his most equivocal works in any medium. Most accounts over-stress its introspection, but Kanneh-Mason gauged the varied expressive shades of its Adagio with unforced rightness; its wrenching climax finding acute contrast with the sombre rumination from which it emerges and to which it returns. The ensuing Allegrettos could not be more dissimilar – a tensile and sardonic scherzo culminating in raucous fanfares as set into motion the finale. If coordination of soloist and orchestra in the former was a little tentative, Kanneh-Mason adroitly negotiated the latter’s gnomic dialogue – afforded focus by an easeful refrain and with a culmination of defiant exasperation, then a coda of furtive repose.
With its unshowy virtuosity and its concertante-like solo writing, this is a hard piece to bring off, but Kanneh-Mason rendered it with some conviction. He returned for an eloquent encore of what sounded to be a (Ukrainian?) folksong with the front four desks of the CBSO cellos.
After the interval, another chance to hear the Third Symphony by Weinberg this orchestra has rather made its own in recent seasons. Ostensibly a response to the anti-formalist campaign as spearheaded by Andrei Zhdanov, with the intention of making Soviet art more accountable to the public, its citing Belorussian and Polish folksongs is offset by the opening Allegro’s often ambivalent progress to a coda shot through with foreboding. Politi was often persuasive here, then not at all fazed by the Allegretto’s interplay of whimsical with a more sardonic humour.
Even better was to come in the Adagio’s finely sustained progress towards a climax of stark tragedy, only slightly mediated by the pensive close. An energetic final Allegro duly set out to secure an affirmative end, only to culminate in marked desperation, and it was a measure of Politi’s insight that the coda maintained its uncertainty even as those decisive closing bars echoed to silence. The CBSO responded impressively throughout a piece it must know better than any other orchestra, and it was to Politi’s credit that her own input was so often evident.
Hopefully MG-T will recover in time for the CBSO’s forthcoming European tour, such that Weinberg’s Fourth Symphony will gain the hearings it deserves. And if next season she can schedule the Fifth, arguably his finest purely orchestral symphony, then so much the better.
For more information on the CBSO’s spring tour, visit their website. Meanwhile for more information on the artists, click on the names to access the websites of Charlotte Politi and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Meanwhile for more on composer Mieczysław Weinberg, click here