MUSIC : Riding out the storm

CBSO / Rattle Birmingham
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The Independent Culture
There can't have been many staggering out of Symphony Hall on Tuesday night who didn't feel like wet rags. Amazingly enough, some brave souls stayed for BCMG's late-night performance of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. In principle this was an excellent idea, extending and reinforcing our appreciation of the 1940s; but, after the music-making earlier in the evening, it was a concert too far. For CBSO's final contribution to "Towards the Millennium" had surely been one of the most intense and emotionally draining examinations ever of the music of that decade.

If there was a theme, it must have been the exposition of tortured souls: Britten working through the agonies of Peter Grimes; Schoenberg, in his Piano Concerto, all too aware of the vicissitudes of the Thirties and Forties; and Shostakovich, with his Eighth Symphony, providing the most graphic chart of the sheer psychological damage that war can bring.

Approaches to the "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, tend, in the first three at least, to focus upon the tranquil aspects of the sea. From the outset, however, Simon Rattle and the CBSO purveyed a different image of these familiar pieces. "Dawn" (some smudges in the unison lines apart) came with blinding clarity, evoking a pitiless aspect of sea and sky. "Sunday Morning" was shot through with neurotic anger. But the final shock was the concluding "Storm": faster and more furious than I have ever heard, its passacaglia repetitions abandoned the merely sinister for the horrifyingly manic. A revelatory performance, but one which, were it transferred to the opera house, would blow the singers off the stage.

Sadly, Alfred Brendel, a doughty champion of Schoenberg's Piano Concerto, was indisposed. His place was taken by John Horton; still in his third year of a music degree at Cambridge, he turned in a performance of perception and surprising delicacy. Some of the anger that had pervaded the "Sea Interludes" seemed to have rubbed off on the Schoenberg: at times the orchestra overstepped the bounds of strong argument into stridency. A pity, since Horton's delicately colourful playing tended to get swamped. Some of the blame rests with Schoenberg's intermittent over-scoring, but the band, perhaps with an eye on even louder things to come, let go with too much abandon.

Mere description of Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony can convey little of its potential. There are, of course, the resemblances to the opening movement of the Fifth, the familiar motor rhythms, and the composer's characteristic irony. None of this, in the wrong hands, can prevent the work seeming a bit of a bore. In the right hands, however, it is a shattering experience that takes the listener through the pain and pointlessness of war with merciless directness.

Rattle and the CBSO gave the work with devastating commitment. The scary climaxes of the first and final movements, the deathly fanfares of the Allegro non troppo, were terrifying and unforgettable; even the witless jocularity of the finale seemed to make a powerful point - how else do you react to the extremes of the previous movements? Not, perhaps, an evening to repeat too often but, as a lesson in the art that can be plucked from brutality, certainly not one to be missed.