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Review: Beethoven's Fourth, CBSO at Symphony Hall

Beethoven's fourth symphony lacked mystery, menace and magic.

Beethoven's Fourth, CBSO at Symphony Hall
***

What the opening of this performance of Beethoven's fourth symphony lacked was, well take your pick: mystery, menace, magic.

The hushed harmonically slow-moving adagio bars should suggest inky darkness and threatening midnight shadows – this was more a dull overcast early evening.

Once conductor Richard Farnes unleashed the fortissimo chords that send the movement roaring on its way there was a vast improvement. Basses ground away gruffly, the upper strings soared and suddenly the music began to resemble the composer Robert Simpson's description of its “compact supple movement” and “dangerous lithe economy.”

The danger lurked just below the slow movement's seemingly placid surface while on top Oliver Janes' lovely clarinet sang mournfully. The scherzo's manic energy was infectious while Farnes and the players clearly relished the finale's Haydnesque high jinks. Similarly, the performance of the Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser impressed most in the extrovert passages where the percussion section excelled – castanets in Wagner!

It's the fashion now for many soloists, seeking to make an instant impact during their entry in Sibelius's violin concerto, to play it barely audibly in an attempt at making it ethereal.

Jack Liebeck played it straight and mezzo-forte just as the composer requested and this set the pattern for a strong, sinewy performance which didn't try to make the work more “poetic” than it is. Liebeck's tone isn't sumptuous, and tended to take on an acidulous edge under pressure, but his slightly wiry sound suited a vigorous approach in which Sibelius's demanding passages were skilfully negotiated.

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