Cambridge Philharmonic’s programme at West Road Concert Hall on Saturday evening (November 4) opened with Rachmaninov’s The Isle of the Dead, a symphonic poem inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s mythic painting of this title, and a work of which the composer himself with justification thought highly.
Böcklin’s picture was known initially to Rachmaninov by a black and white print he saw of it, and he preferred this, he later said, to the painting itself. Perhaps he thought that the stark confrontation of life with death was better represented in monochrome.
The deep bell-like tones with which the piece begins, develop into a kind of sinister barcarolle as Charon ferries the departed soul to its island burial place, a dark Romantic territory of the subconscious, of memory, of dream.
The orchestra performed the 20 minute piece with conviction, beautifully conveying the inevitability of the journey, with several rising and foreboding sequences of, at times, frightening power, before subsiding back into the pace of the opening sequence as the ferryman rows away from his grim mission.
Benjamin Britten’s violin concerto must be one of the most challenging in the repertoire. Sibelius’s is a match perhaps, and Shostakovich’s 1st, performed with this orchestra exactly a year ago by Saturday’s returning soloist, the stunning virtuoso, Matthew Trusler.
Trusler’s performance of Britten’s deeply melancholy work, full of tensions and anxieties about exile and the onset of war, was delivered with acute sensitivity, as he engaged in dialogue with the orchestra’s powerful brass and string sections and the ominous timpani, whose interjections on kettle and snare drums were uncomfortable reminders of the terrors of war and death.
The violin’s long and virtuosic second movement cadenza provided no impediment to Trusler’s matchless technique. And whereas the full orchestra with its varying degrees of discordancy seemed, at least in the final movement, to reach a degree of resignation in a sad conclusion, the impassioned violin was left still struggling, it seemed, to find that resting place it couldn’t achieve.
Matthew Trusler received a deserved and prolonged ovation for his truly memorable performance.
After the interval, the gravity of the two works preceding it was somewhat lightened by Dvořák’s 7th Symphony whose stormy opening and underlying seriousness could not overwrite a succession of melodic passages, some hymn-like, others lively and effervescent, as in the dancing scherzo, and the sublimely beautiful Finale.
If the end of Britten’s concerto is compromised by doubt and inconclusiveness, Dvorřák’s symphony (which must rank with the greatest in the genre) reaches a very powerful, determined and hard-won conclusion. The Cambridge Philharmonic did it proud, and Tim Redmond its conductor guided the enjoyable evening’s proceedings with his usual flair and imagination.