BBC SSO / Chauhan
The Sage, Gateshead
It’s always refreshing to have a change of scenery, and that applies as much to orchestras like the BBC SSO who were on Tyneside – literally – on Friday to repeat the all-action programme it had delivered the previous evening to its home audience in Glasgow and live across the nation on BBC Radio 3. A healthy turn-out greeted the visitors to Gateshead’s smart riverside Sage venue, where the SSO’s outgoing associate conductor, Alpesh Chauhan, addressed the swashbuckling adventurism of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote alongside the questioning euphoria of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
Such intense repertoire was subjected to inquisitive exploration, at times probing originality, by Chauhan. Where he sought restless irascibility in the Strauss, the focus of his Shostakovich was surely its tangible dichotomy, a work written “in response” to Stalin’s personal attack on what he saw as increasingly “non-Soviet” tendencies in the composer’s music (chiefly in his opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District), but which has nowadays come to represent a stinging, concealed expression of intellectual, if not political, dissent.
The latter was the most thoroughly convincing of the evening’s performances, all the more for the horrifying relevance it harnesses right now as the west faces up to – and maybe Russians themselves begin to question – the humaneness of one man’s repressive, dictatorial will. Chauhan elicited an all-important steeliness: those endless aching melodies that take flight in the opening movement offset by a chillingly spare dehumanisation; the throwaway curtness brutally exaggerated in the Scherzo; the breathtaking sumptuousness of the slow third movement soaked in irony as a deceptive foil to the agonising, empty ecstasy of the finale.
There was an unpredictability to Chauhan’s tempi that enhanced the boldness of the message, which the SSO responded to with fearsome exhilaration, the richness and focus of the ensemble as thrilling as the exceptionalism of the passing solo contributions.
Where the Shostakovich was spine chilling, the concert opener – Don Quixote – seemed happier just to tickle the senses. The former bore the 3-D vibrance of an oil painting defined by the physicality of its bold brushstrokes, whereas the latter conveyed more the pallid self-contentment of a pretty watercolour.
This wasn’t so much an issue with the soloists, guest cellist Pablo Ferrández playing the starry-eyed eponymous hero against flamboyant support from SSO principal viola Scott Dickinson (in evocative conversation also with orchestra leader Laura Samuel), and prominently featuring tenor tuba, bass clarinet and ravishing oboe. And for the most part, Chauhan captured the cut and thrust of the music, its stormy abandon, wild cameos and generally restive abandon.
What it missed in places was a more piercing precision, sharper orchestral colourings to bring the narrative more vividly to life. There were plenty rosy moments, those characteristic Straussian eruptions filling the hall with wholesome enchantment, but such curious cacophonies as the discordant bleating sheep needed greater confidence in themselves to make a convincing musical point.
That aside, this substantial pairing went down a storm with the local audience, making the SSO’s day trip to Newcastle in such unpredictable weather a more gladdening experience than it might otherwise have been.