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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Ravel and Mahler: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 24.11.05 (CT)



For the first time in twenty years of concert going, congestion on the M6 and virtual gridlock in central Birmingham conspired to ensure that I missed the first half of a concert. After so many unscathed years, I guess the laws of probability are such that it had to happen sooner or later!


The saving grace was that it did allow a new experience in the Symphony Hall auditorium. Arriving just over half way through Ravel’s Suite from Mother Goose, I had hoped to sneak in between movements. The door attendants, who were admirably conscientious in fulfilling their duties to the letter, quickly pointed out that this would not possible and offered to escort me to the “radio room” if I wished. This turned out to be one of a number of small soundproofed “studios” situated to the rear of the stalls, each providing seating for about eight people. The radio room allowed an impressively panoramic view of the stage from behind glass, the sound being piped in via two small overhead speakers. Indeed, had it not been for the somewhat average sound quality produced by the internal sound system, the experience would not have been frustrating at all.


A limited assessment of the final two movements of Mother Goose was just about possible, with the warmth of the CBSO strings contributing to a lush, touching account of the radiant finale, Le Jardin Feérique.


After many earlier experiences of Mahler’s music at Symphony Hall, this was the first occasion on which I had heard Sakari Oramo stake his claim to Rattle’s lasting reputation for Mahler performance in Birmingham. The Symphony No. 1 just so happened to be the logical place to start and the immediate impression was one of Oramo’s painstaking vision of the work, marked like so much of his other music making, by scrupulous attention to balance, textural nuance and detail. It was evident from the very opening chord, with the octaved As beautifully poised and balanced as the earth slowly stirs into life, that Oramo knew exactly what he wanted to hear. The initial paragraphs created an immediate sense of atmosphere.

The overall vision however, turned out to be a rounded approach which although not lacking in excitement, appeared to aim principally at a sense of completeness and unification. Admirable though this might be, at times it felt at odds with the essential immediacy and spirit of earthiness that certain passages in the two middle movements particularly demand. As a consequence I found myself harking back to Daniel Barenboim’s performance of the work at this year’s Proms with his wonderfully spirited West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The sheer enthusiasm of that performance, the feeling of nature laid bare to our observing eyes, created a vivid impression. In contrast the luxuriant beauty of sound created by Oramo and his players left me feeling somewhat robbed of the rustic nature of the opening of the second movement, whilst in the third the references to Jewish dance could have been more vividly brought to life.


The final movement was a different matter entirely, with Oramo brilliantly engaging the full weight of his forces into the blazing devilment of Mahler’s creation. The brass in particular excelled here whilst Oramo kept a firm rein, never allowing the latent energy to subside. It proved to be a triumphant conclusion to a performance that ultimately succeeded in overall vision despite having failed in dramatic contrast.


For both works, Oramo chose to divide the violins to left and right, with the basses arched around the rear of the orchestra and the acoustic doors behind and above the orchestra fully open. This was a choice that yielded positive results, the placing of the orchestra being particularly effective in the Mahler. Whether Oramo chooses the same formation for future large scale works will be a point to observe with some interest.


Christopher Thomas



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