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S & H Concert Review

Janácek, Mahler and Debussy, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras, Christopher Maltman (Baritone), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 3rd December 2002 (CT)



Incredibly this was the third consecutive CBSO concert I have attended that has been subject to a last minute change of soloist, in this case Christopher Maltman replacing the indisposed Sarah Connolly in Mahlerís Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Hopefully the orchestra are not taking it too personally!

Sadly, another striking feature for all the wrong reasons was the disappointing audience turn out, strange given a highly appetising programme with the added attraction of Mackerras conducting his beloved Janácek. The cost of Christmas looming perhaps?

It was Janácek that Mackerras opened with in the shape of the orchestral suite from The Cunning Little Vixen, not as is often the case in Vaclav Talichís orchestration but, unusually, in the composerís own, perhaps accounting for Mackerras using a score in a work that he otherwise must know like the back of his hand. Being so used to the Talich, my first impression was of how much "softer" his orchestration is than that of the composer. Janácekís own scoring is pointed, characteristically skilful in its use of effect and at times strikingly original. Whether I would want to abandon the familiarity of the Talich however in favour of the less frequently heard "original" will take further listening to decide. Initially the orchestra did not seem entirely at ease with the brisk, crisp opening tempo adopted by Mackerras, the ensemble not always being as one in the violins at the very opening. In comparison, the second movement brought playing of radiance, the orchestra settling into Mackerrasís economical yet gently authoritative manner.

I have often admired Christopher Maltman for his sensitive and considered performances of lieder, not perhaps the most powerful of voices but memorable for the care and attention to nuance that I have frequently found in his singing. This was very much how he came across in the four delightful Mahler songs that comprise Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. There were moments when it seemed that it was quite a struggle for Maltman to penetrate through the sound of the orchestra but it hardly detracted from a performance that was full of character, touching in the opening and closing songs, intense in the dark passion of the third song, Ich hab ein glühend Messer and beautifully accompanied by the orchestra in Ging heut morgen übers Feld.

If there was a highlight of the evening however, it was undoubtedly the performance of Debussyís Prélude à líaprès-midi díun faune that opened the second half. Mackerras could hardly have drawn more sumptuous, limpid, languid and above all sensual playing from the orchestra. There were wonderful contributions from individual players but it was in the luxuriousness of the sound coupled with the delicate shaping of the phrases that Mackerras, again in his typically understated way, kept me riveted with throughout. Shame on the member of the audience who applauded before the sumptuous closing sounds had settled. This was a tough act to follow and the performance of Images that came next never quite reached the same heights of rapture. Gigues was the most successful of the pieces, capturing an atmospheric Keel Row through the mist, yet Ibéria seemed to lack the same level of stylistic characterisation, notably in the final Le matin díun jour de fête, where the Spanish guitar tunes and garish woodwind solos were just that little bit too within themselves. The vigour of Rondes de Printemps was more successful yet coming away from the concert I was happy to content myself with the intriguing prospect of further exploration of Janácekís own Vixen suite and the warmth of a memorable Prélude à líaprès-midi díun faune.

Christopher Thomas.


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