As the St Peter’s Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C Minor came to its tragically sombre end, the audience were so engrossed that for some time they forgot to applaud. Stunned silences were to become a theme of the evening, with a programme bookended by deeply personal responses to the devastation wreaked by the Second World War, from two composers whose lives were inextricably bound up in its horrors. This was never going to be an evening for polite applause.
The Chamber Symphony is Soviet conductor Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. This smaller work was composed in just three days in July 1960 while the composer was visiting Dresden, a city crippled by air raids in early 1945. Its five conjoined movements are by turn bleak, furious, and violent. Conveying the deep sense of anguish present in this music is no easy task, but one that the St Peter’s Chamber Orchestra more than rose to. The players were visibly committed throughout, with enough technical command in even the most difficult of passages to allow the pathos of the music to take centre stage. The orchestra particularly excelled in the most furious sections (the second movement being a fine example), bringing a gripping level of intensity, with snarling cellos and basses underpinning shrieking violins, which perfectly conveyed the anger latent in the music. At the other end of the scale, there was also some wonderfully expressive solo playing from Ben Cartlidge (violin) and Rebecca McNaught (cello). If there was anything to fault, it was perhaps the dynamic contrast. While the orchestra managed to reach an impressively loud volume where necessary, there wasn’t quite the same level of attention to keeping the volume down in the quieter passages, which would have added still more drama to the performance. This is a minor complaint, however; the overall shape of the music still came across.
Edward Elgar’s Sospiri and Richard Strauss’ song Morgen! provided welcome juxtapositions to the opening work. Composed in 1913–14 and 1894 respectively, both pieces hark back to a time perceived as being simpler, expressing melancholy but not post-war desolation. Sheer beauty is the aim here, and the orchestra duly transitioned to a luscious tone quality which provided a beautiful cushion of sound for Lila Chrisp’s expressive performance of the Strauss. Her clear voice and well-judged use of facial and hand gestures contributed a poignant performance. At times the orchestra were a little too loud in comparison to the voice, but they by no means drowned Chrisp out. In both of the central works of the programme, the phrasing and use of rubato were expressive without ever sounding contrived.
The programme ended with Strauss’ Metamorphosen. Composed in 1945 during the closing months of the Second World War, it is seen as Strauss’ reaction to the devastation that the conflict had wrought upon Germany and its culture. Hearing this work in close proximity to the Shostakovich brought out some interesting comparisons. Both works are emotional outpourings, full of pathos, but the Strauss rises and falls slowly, occasionally allowing a more optimistic passage to flower, while the Shostakovich is incessantly dark, with jarring, split-second changes of character. However, despite the greatly different compositional styles, the overall effect of both works is indisputably one of mournfulness, highlighting the shared experiences that war brought to composers from two fundamentally different musical and political cultures.
Conductor John Warner demonstrated impressive control of tempi and dynamics in this final piece, imbuing this slowly-developing work with a clear sense of shape and direction. The ensemble was extremely tight and assured throughout, although unfortunately some of the complexities of the chamber writing were lost in the large acoustic of St Peter’s College Chapel. Odd moments were somewhat out of tune or not quite in unison, but the performance overall was one of impressive technical surety. The piece ends with a quote from the funeral march of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, subtitled ‘IN MEMORIAM’ in the score, prompting the common interpretation of this work as an elegy for German culture. The orchestra achieved a real sense of solemnity at this point, leaving the audience in pin-drop silence as the final chord died away.