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S & H Concert Review

Anderson, Berlioz, Ravel & Mussorgsky: City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 14th March (CT)


 

Julian Anderson Imaginíd Corners
Hector Berlioz Béatrice et Bénédict-Overture
Maurice Ravel Mother Goose Suite
Modest Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel) Pictures at an Exhibition

Having just taken over the mantle of CBSO Composer in Association from Judith Weir, Imaginíd Corners is the first of several projected works for the orchestra and itís related ensembles that Julian Anderson will write over the next three years. The orchestra gave two performances in the same week, the premiere having taken place two nights before this concert, a rare opportunity for a composer indeed and a privilege afforded to a very select few. But Anderson is an undoubted talent and one of the most assured compositional voices to appear in recent years, a fact borne out by the recent CBSO performances of his Prom commission The Stations of the Sun.

Taking as his starting points a line from John Donneís Seven Holy Sonnets and Schumannís Konzertstück for horns and orchestra, Anderson takes five horns and creates a concerto like showpiece, exploiting the traditional character of the instruments in distinctly untraditional ways, as well as the spatial opportunities afforded by Symphony Hall. A glance through the composerís programme note on the piece could well worry the listener of nervous disposition in its technical explanation of his use of micro-tonal tuning systems, however such is Andersonís skill in weaving these harmonies into his textures it is highly unlikely to cause offence. In fact, although the language is unquestionably of our time, Anderson shares a wonderfully sensitive ear with his teacher, Oliver Knussen, in his stunning use of the orchestra with crystal clear transparency of orchestration and a bewildering and beguiling textural palette.

Much use is made of the cors de chasse (as the composer puts it) style of horn playing, the work opening atmospherically with four of the horns calling from off stage, the other horn remaining on the stage throughout, seated between the wind and brass. It is not until around one third of the way through the piece that the four off stage players appear on the stage, taking their seats in front of the conductor. Their appearance follows a gradually accelerating passage from the orchestra, the now seated horns revelling in their cors de chasse style, and ultimately resulting in the horns separating to either side of the stage, their calls getting ever wilder until they bring the work to a bellowing conclusion. In amongst the fun, there is some luminously beautiful orchestral writing and Andersonís fertile musical imagination has resulted in a work that clearly caught the audienceís attention. Add to this an impressively confident performance with fine playing from the solo horns and the conclusion is a fitting start to Andersonís residency with the orchestra and his new Birmingham audience.

The decision to open the concert with the Anderson as opposed to the more predictable Berlioz overture turned out to be a good one, the Anderson being suitably spirited for the purpose. If anything, the Berlioz seemed to suffer as a result, for although the lively opening was well captured, overall the performance did not quite come alive. The same certainly could not be said of the Ravel however, with the strings turning in some ravishingly alluring sounds, notably in the glorious concluding Le Jardin féerique, as moving as I have ever heard it and simply glowing in the wonderful final chord. The resonant warmth of the CBSO strings coupled with the depth and clarity of the Symphony Hall acoustic seemed to serve the delicacy of Ravelís often chamber like orchestration well and from the limpid, sensitively shaped flute solo at the opening of Sleeping Beautyís Pavane through the palpable sadness of Tom Thumb, to the finely characterised oriental world of the Empress of the Pagodaís, the playing was never short of delightful throughout.

Pictures at an Exhibition usually makes at least one appearance during every Symphony Hall concert season and although I have heard several performances by visiting orchestras as well as the CBSO I recall the consistency as being somewhat questionable. A case of over familiarity breeding complacency in some cases perhaps. Fortunately there was much here to commend, the majestic yet rounded statement of the opening brass promenade leading into possibly not the most menacing Gnome I have ever heard but certainly one of the most eerie, the weird string glissandos coming through exceptionally well. The saxophone solo in The Old Castle was complimented by some notably fine accompaniment and although the chattering in the Tuileries could have been that little more lively, Bydlo was supremely effective in its weight and dynamic control. What a fabulous euphonium sound! The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells more than made up for Tuileries in its poise and effortless lightness of touch and rarely have I heard the tricky piccolo trumpet part in Goldenberg and Schmuyle articulated with such clarity. The brass section consistently showed themselves to be on fine form, mysterious and awesome in Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua and genuinely terrifying in Baba Yaga, which unleashed itself with unbridled power. The Great Gate of Kiev did not disappoint in its majesty, with brass and bells blazing to the last. Cumulatively, this was a truly fine performance and, perhaps more importantly, a refreshingly engaging one.

Christopher Thomas.


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