CBSO: Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7 December 2022

Shostakovich Fifth Alpesh.
Alpesh Chauhan – Conductor
Eugene Tzikindelean – Violin

Brahms Tragic Overture
Nielsen Violin Concerto
Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

It was a treat to experience the conducting of the relatively young, exciting, and Birmingham-born Alpesh Chauhan who was Assistant Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra from 2014 to 2016, and more recently Musical Director of Birmingham Opera Company (BOC). He conducted BOC’s 2019 production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk directed by the late Sir Graham Vick. This was a triumph and led to Chauhan being named Newcomer of the Year in 2021, together with an OBE for his overall Service to the Arts in January 2022.

His experience with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk links nicely to this concert. For it was Josef Stalin’s condemnation of Lady Macbeth which led Shostakovich to compose his Fifth Symphony. Stalin dubbed the highly expressionist opera a ‘muddle instead of music’ – and this had potentially catastrophic consequences for Shostakovich’s professional career – and his very life. It was this that led him to write his Fifth Symphony; referring to it as ‘a Soviet artist’s practical and creative response to just criticism’.

Clearly Chauhan knows his Shostakovich, and this knowledge and understanding came out clearly in a measured and thoughtful performance. Chauhan’s reading captured both the shapes of the individual movements and the overarching form of the symphony as a whole. The conductor guided us surefootedly from the menacing opening movement, through the rictus grin of the scherzo, the pathos of the slow movement to its heroic – or perhaps mock-heroic – conclusion.

The orchestra as a whole was on top form and responded with total commitment to the vibrant conductor’s charismatic lead. However, and we are deeply saddened & sorry to say, there were – yet again – some disgracefully poor mistakes, and the usual problems with fluffing and intonation by the principal horn. For example, in the (potentially) exquisite, quiet, four-statement canonic duet between solo flute and solo horn towards the end of the first movement, three of the four canonic responses given by the solo horn were totally cracked, and they all lacked any bloom on the tone. Such a dreadful shame. This is not the playing we expect from a world-class orchestra and we can only hope it gets sorted out in time for the arrival of the CBSO’s new Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor Kazuki Yamada on 1 April 2023.

The second work of the concert was Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, a little known, highly virtuosic piece. The CBSO’s very own lead violinist, Eugene Tzikindelean played the solo. This is a stunning violinist who combines passion and precision with a beast of a tone. He delivered intensity, power, presence and fire. It was a shame, but perhaps unsurprising, that – Paganini-like – he broke a string during the first movement! Tzikindelean took things in his stride like a true professional; whipped out a replacement string, and was up on his feet playing again within moments, for which the warm, Birmingham audience expressed its approval. The balance & rapport between soloist and orchestra was perfect, as one might expect. However, this mostly bravura-style, and rather formless, violin concerto may well be one of those “marmite” affairs; you either love it or hate it.

As is so often the case one felt the opening overture, Brahms’ Tragic, a well know warhorse known to many, probably did not get its fair share of rehearsal time. The playing was competent, but nothing to write home about.

Clearly sufficient time and attention had been given to the other two works in the concert which were performed with polish and panache. And, as for Maestro Chauhan: a most exceptional and visionary conductor with an electrifying presence; more please!

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