Review: Howard Shelley conducts Dvorak and Brahms

Shounok Chatterjee & Ben Kearns 21 January 2015

Saturday night saw the renowned Howard Shelley conduct works by Dvorak and Brahms in King's College Chapel. Two contributors gave us their impressions of the night.

Shounok Chatterjee:

The sombre notes of the final plea ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…for they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them’ settles across the haunting silhouettes of Kings College Chapel ominously, followed by an uneasy silence. Brahms is said to have intended his Ein deutsches Requiem as a work to console the living rather than commemorate the dead. There is a delectable pause, quiet and contemplative as if we are all woken from a deep and entrancing thought. And then applause, breaking out in unison and enduring for quite some time which is enough for the conductor Howard Shelley to take a number of bows and recognise the magisterial combined force of the Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra, Members of CUMS Symphony Orchestra as well as the choirs of Clare, Gonville & Caius, Jesus and Selwyn colleges, members of the CUMS Chorus and Cambridge University Chamber Choir.

Howard Shelley has won critical acclaim as a pianist with definitive recordings of Rachmaninoff’s piano works, as well as recognition as a conductor through celebrated associations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Mozart Players among others. And the virtuoso succeeds in obtaining an intoxicatingly full sound from the choir that suffuses the high vaulted space of the chapel completely. The sixth movement, ‘For we have here no abiding city’, was especially good at containing the most dramatic contrasts between the andante first segment in C minor and the final allegro in C major, ‘Lord you are worthy’.

The two soloists, both former Cantabrians, gave stirring performances. Elinor Rolfe Jonson, the soprano, has a pleasing treacly voice. Jonathan Sells, the baritone, has a sonorous voice that gives clear articulation to the painful request ‘Lord, let me know mine end.’

I remain unconvinced about Shelley’s interpretation of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony, which was performed at the beginning of the concert. A conspicuously positioned chorister seemed to share my ambivalence about the Dvorak and yawned twice in the third movement. You know who you are. While it was hardly soporific, the intensely expressive first movement in G minor lacked the movement of an allegro con brio. And the protracted and gory attention to the dramatic minor key descent in the finale seemed unnecessary and slowed the finale down. The trip up into the wrong beat that is meant to bring the symphony to a breathless close was never quite realised and was more like an awkward add on that made for an uncertain and ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.


Benedict Kearns:

This concert had huge amounts of promise, with a both demanding and rewarding programme; it mostly delivered. Cambridge University Chamber Orchestra (CUCO) in addition to members of CUMS Symphony Orchestra opened the concert with verve in Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8. The opening cello melody resonated gloriously in the beautiful acoustic of King’s College Chapel and despite the space being infamously difficult, Howard Shelley made fast tempi work admirably well throughout this concert. The second movement showed off the woodwinds’ generally tight tuning and special mention should go to flautist, Simone Maurer, who performed exceptionally. There was something slightly lacking in the Dvorak, even Shelley’s upbeat speeds could not quite hide the occasional feeling of lacklustre in the long spanning phrases. Also, in more than a handful of occasions, initial speeds felt uncomfortable and it took a number of bars for the music to settle; perhaps a product of the difficult acoustical conditions.

This being said, the Dvorak was well-received by the audience (who incidentally and wonderfully filled the Chapel to maximum capacity) and the Brahms was awaited with great anticipation. A work of epic proportions had a chorus to match; the combined forces of Gonville & Caius, Clare, Jesus and Selwyn Colleges filled the width of the Chapel with at least five rows and were a force with which to be reckoned. Call me cynical, but I go to concerts with choruses and invariably expect for the orchestra to be too loud, the chorus to look miserable as sin and words to be completely inaudible. Wonderfully refreshingly, this was not the case. Tim Brown’s (chorus master) monumental round of applause was thoroughly deserved; every word was clearly audible, they sang with passion and vibrancy, and their coordination with the orchestra was excellent. As in the Dvorak, the violins were lacking presence in the sound and were at times lost altogether. The timpanist was clearly enjoying himself, often too much.

Jonathan Sells (baritone solo) was sadly drowned out by the orchestra; he is an artist more at home in art song than large-scale Romantic repertoire and this was clear. I was fortunate enough to be sitting very close to him and was just about able to discern the nuance which he brought to the music, however, beyond the eighth row of seating his sound vanished in the orchestra’s volume. Rolfe Johnson soared beautifully above the orchestra; not competing for volume, but finding a way through the orchestra’s sound which could be heard by everyone.

The concert was well delivered and Shelley dealt spectacularly with the acoustic, maximising it for its soft-focus, whilst simultaneously allowing the smallest details to come through.