S&H Concert Review

BARTÓK Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste SHOSTAKOVITCH Cello Concerto No. 1 VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 4 in F minor City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo with Natalia Gutman (cello) at Symphony Hall, Birmingham 21 February 2001 (CT)

It is good to see that Sakari Oramo is emulating Simon Rattle in ensuring that concert audiences in Birmingham hear an eclectic and invigorating range of repertoire in the CBSO's Symphony Hall concert programming.

Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste started well with some beautifully balanced, hushed string playing which captured the haunting atmosphere impressively. The searing climax at the first movement's centre point however did not burn in the way that this dramatically intense music must if it is to create a lasting impression and the same can be said of the second movement, effectively a scherzo, which, whilst demonstrating excellent clarity in some of the denser antiphonal passages, somehow failed to leap out at me. The awkward off beat pizzicato passages with the piano were not always as tight as they could have been, but I am sure that the composer would have enjoyed the percussive effects in the strings. By the Adagio third movement, the orchestra was starting to settle down and we were treated to some wonderfully played glissandos and violin harmonics effects. The hushed conclusion was particularly memorable, with true pianissimo playing suffering no loss of tone in the strings. The Hungarian folk-like tunes and rhythms of the final Allegro Molto featured some characterful playing and the players were clearly now enjoying themselves, bringing the work to a breathless conclusion. Overall the performance could not be described as memorable although once it got into its stride it certainly possessed a degree of momentum.

Natalia Gutman (widow of the great violinist Oleg Kagan - hear them together in the wonderful double concerto for violin, cello & orchestra dedicated to them by Anatol Vieru Olympia OCD 409 [nla]) brought to the surface admirably the biting irony and intense passion of Shostakovitch's Cello Concerto No. 1 in a genuinely gritty performance of considerable character. Admittedly I felt a few reservations at the coarseness of her tone at times in the first movement, but it was immediately clear that the orchestra were responding to her with some tremendously taut playing. Similar reservations at the commencement of the central Moderato were soon dispelled as Gutman really sang the yearning melody at the movement's centre, and the transition into the final Allegro con moto was well handled. The orchestra continued to provide first rate accompaniment in the bristling final movement, the soloist sensing their commitment and at the conclusion notably acknowledging the principal horn for some fine playing of a strenuous part. It was clear from the rapt attention on their faces during the delightful encore of unaccompanied Bach that the members of the cello section held the soloist in esteem.

Having long been a great enthusiast of Vernon Handley's Vaughan Williams performances, both live and in his fabulous recorded cycle on EMI Eminence, I was curious as to how Sakari Oramo would approach this most "English" of composers. The result was pleasing, though not without some caveats. The towering onslaught of the first movement's opening was caught with true power, although strangely I felt that Oramo failed to fully exploit the huge dynamic climaxes later in the movement. There was a genuine feeling of mystery however in the closing paragraphs, truly spine-tingling stuff. The slow movement got off to a slightly shaky start with a split first note in the trumpets, which disturbed the feeling of the opening bars. Once settled, the desolation of this inspired music could be felt fully and once again I could only marvel at the atmospheric conclusion to the movement where, after the sheer ferocity of some of the preceding music, the solo flute, wonderfully played, floated hauntingly over muted trombone chords. True Vaughan Williams. The characteristic scherzo, with its menacing references to the outer movements, was played with great gusto and led into a powerful concluding Finale and Fugato, in which the brass blazed with hair raising power and the strings demonstrated stunning clarity of detail in the often dense contrapuntal writing. The conclusion was aptly shattering and it is no wonder that after the initial rehearsals in 1935 William Walton was prompted to tell his friends that they were about to hear "the greatest symphony of modern times". This was a performance which formed a satisfying conclusion to the concert and left me hoping to hear Oramo and the orchestra tackle more RVW in the future.

Christopher Thomas

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