Youth and Musical Performances: Chetham's Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann; Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy

By Anderson, Martin | Musical Opinion, July/August 2013 | Go to article overview

Youth and Musical Performances: Chetham's Symphony Orchestra/Paul Mann; Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy


Anderson, Martin, Musical Opinion


IN Musical Opinion a year or so ago I reviewed a concert given at the Cadogan Hall in October 2010 by Chetham's Symphony Orchestra under Paul Mann, quondam student of Chetham's School of Music: performances of Elgar, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky which, as I said at the time, left me slack-jawed with wonder. Well, on February 23 Mann and his Mancunians were back in Cadogan Hall, this time with a programme of Britten's Suite on English Folk Tunes (A Time There Was), Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony - and they did it again: confident performances in riveting readings that shoved aside any thought of the unwelcome publicity that has recently attended the School.

The Britten Suite was an intelligent choice for such a concert: the first movement is a kind of concertino for orchestra, putting each section through its virtuosic paces. The delicacy of the second movement then requires control, and here, and at other points throughout the concert, was where the inexperience of the players showed: although their musicianship couldn't be faulted, they haven't yet learned that playing well is only part of the battle - professionals also learn the iron stage-discipline that would have avoided the noise of page-turns, scuffed shoes and other noises that intrude on the listener's concentration.

But it's not much to complain about, in all fairness: after polishing off the Britten in sparkling fashion (with a beautiful cor anglais solo in the fifth movement from Richard Lines-Davies), and a barnstorming account of the First Prokofiev Piano Concerto from Yuanfan Yang, a fifteen-year-old Edinburgh-born Chinese who despatched the solo part with almost nonchalant assurance, Mann and his young musicians then delivered a thrilling reading of Shostakovich's Fifth that could hold its own against all competition. He adopted a very broad tempo at the outset, the better to let the details tell, which also provided a hugely effective springboard for the faster music which follows. The climax was searingly intense: it was impossible to escape the realisation, here and in the biting rhythms of the Scherzo, that this music was composed at the height of Stalin's purges - the Terror made audible. Mann took the Largo along a knife-edge, so slowly that it almost risked running out of steam - but he knew what he was doing, and the reward for his risk-taking was an electrifying tension that brought up the hairs on the nape of the neck. Shostakovich famously said of the finale in Testimony that, 'It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, 'Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing", and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing"'. That empty triumph can be difficult to capture, but this reading got it to a tee. It was, in short, the most physically exciting, emotionally draining performance of the Shostakovich I have heard in years; small wonder that the audience erupted in applause. But there was an elephant in the room, and Mann now decided to roger it, raising his hands for silence: 'No big speeches - but just in case you might have been wondering in the past week or two, this is what Chetham's School of Music is all about'. …

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