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 Symphonic Dances (1) Ravel, Berlioz and  Rachmaninov:  City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andris Nelsons (conductor) Charlotte Hellekant (mezzo) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 24.9.2009 (GR)

This was the first of a series of CBSO concerts under the banner of Symphonic Dances. Maestro Andris Nelsons again took the opportunity to welcome the audience and introduce the show; I do enjoy his little chats. This time he wondered if the title of a piece matters, since at first glance La Valse (Ravel) and Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninov) may not convey ‘excitement’. Nelsons had no cause for concern – he generates excitement whenever he picks up the baton. The two orchestral pieces in this concert were no exception.

Maurice Ravel labelled La Valse as un poème choréographic, describing it as an apotheosis of a waltz. Originally commissioned by the Ballets Russes, they never staged it; Diaghilev termed his reaction to it ‘a painting of a ballet’. With their full palette of colours the CBSO made it just that, all sections needing to be on top form for this pocket masterpiece. Threaded through the work was the main waltz theme, but this was no ordinary Viennese waltz. Under the conception of Ravel it ‘collapses’ (to use Nelsons’ words) amidst a series of fragmented melodies, a metaphor for the society prevalent in 1919, the year its completion. The sudden changes in tempo and dynamics were smoothly handled, indicative to the intuitive relationship Nelsons has established with the CBSO. The work might even be regarded as a test piece for orchestras; the CBSO scored an alpha.

Sandwiched between the orchestral excitements wasLes Nuits d’été. Hector Berlioz gave his early song cycle an evocative title. The six poems came from La Comédie de la mort by his close friend Théophile Gautier. Perhaps titles do matter (the Beethoven Piano Sonatas that have become most popular all have a nickname). Gautier’s poetry is very moving even without the inspirational music of Berlioz. The cycle has love as its central theme, its desires, passion and frustrations, topics surely on the agenda of Berlioz and his fellow Romantics during long summer nights on the left bank.

While the CBSO role was now purely supportive, the Swedish Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant occupied centre stage. She looked radiant, sounded warm and secure, and captured the differing moods of the six songs. Skipping lightly through the opening Villanelle, Hellekant brought a breath of spring into the Birmingham Symphony Hall. This happiness changed to one of reflection in the dreamlike Le spectre de la rose. Real angst surfaced in the lament Sur les lagunes; the agony felt for a dead love became progressively despairing in the repeated Ah! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer – my favourite of the six. A sense of longing was conveyed in Absence, made more poignant by the verse/refrain construction. Melancholia reached a peak in Au cimetière, the uncertainties expressed in the vocal line accentuated by the clarinet accompaniment. The closing L’ile inconnue, a barcarole concerning a sailor inviting a pretty girl to join him, partially lifted the gloom, but the sailor’s motives were exposed in the closing strains. Whilst the emotion in the music came across from Hellekant, it was delicate and never overdone – all the more moving for that.

Symphonic Dances
in three movements by Sergei Rachmaninov was said to follow the sequence Midday – Twilight – Midnight, each period with a possible an autobiographical significance. I thought Nelsons got the non allegro tempo of the first movement spot on. After opening salvos from the woodwind and percussion, the full force of the CBSO strings dazzled for the first time in the evening. This led to one of Rachmaninov’s most searching melodies, hauntingly introduced on the alto sax of Kyle Horch. The woodwinds led by the fluid piccolo invoked the ghostly images of dusk in the middle movement. After a brief violin solo from Laurence Jackson the rest of the strings glorified another typically Rachmaninov tune. The bitter struggle between life and death in the final dance was passionately executed. Battling it out were two excerpts from earlier Rachmaninov works – the Dies Irae plainchant finally overcome by the Resurrection from his All-Night Vigil. Nelsons saw to it that life goes on. The final strike of the tam-tam was breathtaking as it disappeared into the rafters of the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Nelsons gave an exhilarating rendition of Rachmaninov’s final work whilst retaining something of the enigma of the piece.

Nelsons mentioned excitement; things are never dull when he engages with the CBSO. However with a playing time of only 1 hr 21 min, was the audience getting value for money? 

Geoff Read

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