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S & H Concert Review

Vaughan Williams, MacMillan, Brahms, Colin Currie (percussion), City of Birmingham Youth Chorus, City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 25th March, 2003 (CT)


Two weeks prior to this concert I reviewed another CBSO concert with another American guest conductor, Robert Spano. Spano had usefully illustrated the second half performance of Ivesís Symphony No. 2 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus singing selected American songs and hymns that feature prominently in the work. In the same way Marin Alsop prefaced the performances of Vaughan Williamsí Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and James MacMillanís percussion concerto, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel that occupied the first half of this concert with the girls of the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus singing the third mode melody that Tallis wrote for Archbishop Parkerís Psalter and which inspired Vaughan Williams to write his first true masterpiece, together with the French Advent plainsong Veni, Veni, Emanuel.

Consequently the first note of the concert was the pure, unaccompanied sound of a single girlís voice floating Tallisís haunting melody around an expectant Symphony Hall, a daunting and nerve jangling experience for the young choir member that she took admirably in her stride. With the melody firmly focused in the mind Alsop immediately slipped into Vaughan Williamsís response, the hushed initial entry in the upper strings beautifully atmospheric. Alsopís attention to phrasing and the delicate nuances of the dynamics became clear early on although her decision to place the string quartet off stage created an unease in the balance that I found somewhat unsettling, the sound from off stage being just too distant, the effect ultimately over exaggerated. It was largely for this reason that I found the performance overall to be lacking the sense of rapture that would have made it truly memorable, although it should be said that the players of the CBSO strings certainly played beautifully, in particular the violin and viola solos of Jacqueline Hartley and Christopher Yates, both of which had a wonderful aura of freedom about them, surely the feeling of Vaughan Williams himself revelling in the freedom of his newfound soundworld.

The success of James MacMillanís percussion concerto, Veni, Veni Emmanuel, is no secret, yet when one considers that this was its milestone three hundredth performance it begins to put that success into its true context, a quite remarkable feat. Listening to the work live it is no surprise that the concerto has proved so popular. The ingredients of a haunting melody that everyone knows, set in a contemporary idiom and an unlikely one at that with a host of percussion instruments as the centrepiece, wrapped up in some stunningly inventive and imaginative writing that is, in its best moments, utterly spellbinding, as was this performance by Colin Currie. It is of course a visual as well as an aural experience and this was clearly not lost on Currie, who recorded the work for Naxos a couple of years ago after Evelyn Glennieís earlier post premiere recording, Glennie being the workís dedicatee. The physical energy of Currieís performance was extraordinary and perhaps all the more so for the fact that the composer was in the audience to celebrate the special occasion. The contribution of the orchestra was equally breathtaking and the moment towards the close where the brass quietly appear through the chaos elsewhere in the orchestra, intoning the chords of "O come, O come", will remain with me for a long time to come. The performance had once again been preceded by the choir singing the original plainsong unadorned and Alsop had also chosen to say a few words about the work, illustrated with a handful of brief musical examples as a useful introduction for the uninitiated. The whole experience was such that I would have happily have gone through it again.

It would have been rather easy to have slipped into a routinely pedestrian performance of Brahmsís Fourth Symphony after the elation of the MacMillan, but Marin Alsop was not going to fall into that trap. Far from it. This was Brahms with attitude and it was obvious from the brisk tempo of the very opening bar that Alsop was going to hit us between the eyes. In point of fact I happen to prefer a fluid tempo in the opening movement although there are those for whom later in the work it may have all become a little too much, the similarly brisk tempo of the Allegro giocoso third movement taking on an almost aggressive quality that had me pinned to my seat and (I confess) smiling wryly on occasions. That said, the balance was preserved by a delicate and thoughtfully shaped second movement, the opening finely measured (a shame about the clipped horn note here) with sensitive woodwind playing and some gloriously rich sounds in the recapitulation. Alsopís determination to drag every ounce of emotional turbulence from Brahmsís score was evident to the last yet her ability to float the more delicate passages was equally telling, in all a highly charged, deeply wrought, even physical performance that left me in little doubt that Alsop is a Brahms conductor to watch. I cannot but help wonder what she would do with Mahler!

Christopher Thomas.



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