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S & H Concert Review

Rachmaninov, Trad. American and Ives, Stephen Hough (pf), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo and Paul Hoskins, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 18th June 2003 (CT)


The culmination of the CBSO’s Charles Ives series saw the second half of this concert given over principally to his pioneering Fourth Symphony, preceded by four of the hymns and songs used extensively by the composer in the piece - a programming formula that had previously proved successful in the penultimate concert in the series in which Robert Spano had conducted an all American programme, including the Second Symphony.

The American connection was still with us here, albeit more tenuously, in a first half of Rachmaninov with the added trans-Atlantic connection of Stokowski’s transcription of the Prelude in C sharp minor. Typically extrovert, imaginative, skilful, lush and sensuous, there are any number of adjectives that can be applied to Stokowski’s brilliantly colourful orchestration. Sakari Oramo was intent from the very opening bars on exploiting every effect, textural variation and nuance of the score, the result being immediately vivid and packed with incident. The sheer indulgence of both arranger and conductor was evident throughout, not least in the Boris Godunov like orchestration towards the close, without question more Mussorgsky than Rachmaninov but marvellous nonetheless!

Stephen Hough showed no intention of lingering over the opening unaccompanied bars of the much loved Second Piano Concerto, his no nonsense introduction setting the tone for much of what was to come, notably in the outer movements. There are occasions when the sheer warmth and weight of the Symphony Hall acoustic can make life just a little difficult for a soloist and such was the case here. From the first bars of the orchestra’s entrance the piano was all but lost beneath their admirable but firm tread, a problem that was occasionally evident later in the movement also. Perhaps the orchestra felt it too, for there were just a couple of moments during the course of the first movement where soloist, conductor and orchestra were not quite of the same mind. No such qualms in the second movement where Hough’s eloquence shone through with playing of touching simplicity and restraint, matched every step of the way by sensitive and thoughtful orchestral accompaniment. The final Allegro scherzando was given a charismatic reading with playing of bravado from Hough and finely graded orchestral dynamics ensuring that there were no further repeats of the balance issues in the opening Moderato.

For the members of the audience who were unfamiliar with Ives Fourth Symphony I have little doubt that the preparatory performance of four of the work’s central hymns and songs, exquisitely sung by the City Of Birmingham Symphony Chorus and conducted and introduced Simon Halsey, would have helped considerably in guiding them through the extraordinary sound world of a work that totally belies its age. Indeed, we are only six years away from the one hundredth anniversary of the commencement of its composition, even though it took Ives another seven years to complete the piece. Sadly the composer did not hear a complete performance of the work during his lifetime (although the first two movements were played in New York under Eugene Goossens in 1927) and it had to wait until 1965 before Stokowski eventually gave the complete premiere with the American Symphony Orchestra. On that occasion Stokowski was assisted in the conducting by Jose Serebrier and David Katz whilst here Sakari Oramo benefited from the able support of Paul Hoskins with whom he has previously collaborated on Peter Grimes. The ethereal, austere beauty of the questioning, opening Prelude: Maestoso was here captured with a fine sense of atmosphere, very much the calm before the storm of the ensuing Allegretto, still utterly astonishing and fascinating not just for its sounds but for the visual spectacle of the two conductors, both of whom here took centre stage following Paul Hoskins’ first movement position on the sidelines with the "offstage" strings. Not surprisingly, the CBSO brass, appropriately swelled for the occasion, responded with resplendent sounds, contributing to a riotous conclusion. The richness and harmonic consonance of the third movement Fugue: Andante moderato could hardly have been presented in starker contrast whilst in the concluding Largo Maestoso, it was Oramo’s pacing that stood out as he slowly allowed the music to develop and grow naturally to the eternal gaze of its conclusion.

It was entirely appropriate that this concert was broadcast live by Radio Three – a fitting conclusion to a series for which Oramo and his orchestra deserve to be congratulated for an achievement of unquestionable triumph.

Christopher Thomas.



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