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Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich : University of London Symphony Orchestra, Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Daniel Capps (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London 26.3.2011 (JPr)

Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod

Mahler, Rückert-Lieder

Shostakovich, Symphony No.11 'The Year 1905'

'Students stage sit-in at the Cadogan Hall' is not a headline to match those about the goings-on in London throughout this day because of the anti-Government demonstrations that were taking place. Fortunately the Cadogan Hall was not in danger, unlike dear-old Fortnum and Mason, because this was a peaceful sit-in by some of University of London's finest, their 80-strong Symphony Orchestra! Sadly, there were not many more than that in the audience since their target audience may well have been caught up with the marches and protests elsewhere … but also there was the strange scheduling of this concert against the University College Opera's final night of 'The Three Pintos' ( review) across town.

The ULSO describe themselves 'as one of the leading student orchestras in the UK. Founded in 1955, ULSO was established to provide students from the diverse academic backgrounds of the University of London's component colleges with the opportunity to play together. The orchestra seeks to provide students with the unique opportunity to study and perform some of the most challenging symphonic repertoire to the highest standard, catering both for those wishing to continue and develop their performance skills whilst completing degrees in non-musical subjects, as well as attracting members seeking to pursue careers in professional music'.

Indeed they were generally as fine a student orchestra as I am ever likely to hear outside the recognised music colleges. The string section, at times, had unanimity of sound that was as rich, full-bodied and the equal of many professional ensembles. They were let down a bit by some individual solo mishaps, particularly towards the end of an over-long evening, but I will not dwell on any shortcomings but celebrate their unfeigned commitment and concentration over the serious music they were playing, as well as, their obvious talent.

I've liked Daniel Capps on two recent occasions I have seen him with non-professional orchestras - not for any grand statements about the music he has conducted - but more for his attention to detail, sensitive musical insight and a clear technique. I could have done with a bit more feeling about living, loving, death and eternity from the Wagner but what more could be expected from musicians with all their lives ahead of them? The young statuesque Estonian mezzo, Kai Rüütel, will sing the Rückert-Lieder better in years to come, as she found the slow tempi of the accompaniment difficult to cope with at times; however, the songs were still performed with warmth, dramatic conviction and a pleasing hint of sensuality.

The Shostakovich was an unknown quantity for me and at the conclusion I was wishing its end. I understand from some background research that it is what it is - apparently 'a film score without a film' - and there is very little any interpreter can do with it. Its scale and emotional range provided the ULSO with a great challenge that they mostly met head-on. First performed in 1957, it was an immediate success for the composer and after a preamble about the influence of the 1905 Russian Revolution and the abortive 1956 Hungarian uprising on Shostakovich, an uncredited programme note suggested the music 'could therefore carry a more global significance, evoking all the revolutions that have broken out across the world'. What prescient concert planning with all the current political chaos in London and throughout the Middle East!

It was generally a very deliberate account of the score and there was a palpable air of stillness in the opening Adagio; stillness that is supposed to evoke the snow-covered streets of St Petersburg with due starkness. In fact there is a lot of menace in this movement and throughout the whole four-movement work, played without a break. The music comes and goes as if we are indeed in the cinema and Capps and his attentive orchestra squeezed every demonstrative moment from the score. The beating of the side drum reminded me of Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony and the tramping cellos were straight from the opening of Die Walküre. Elsewhere all I could think about was that it sounded like the background music to a war in space in any of the Star Trek films I have seen. It all outstayed its welcome as the performance headed into its second hour and the players were clearly flagging: as gripped as I was early on, I began to feel sorry for all concerned and I wondered whether Capps could get them together through the bravura finish. That he did - all things considered - was mightily impressive.

Jim Pritchard

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