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Review: British Classics, CBSO at Symphony Hall

Elgar's In the South is a tone-poem of Straussian stature and texture, and the performance it received from the CBSO under John Wilson was both full-blooded and insightful, generously phrased and perceptively fleet of detail.

British Classics, CBSO at Symphony Hall
****
Birmingham Symphony Hall
Birmingham Symphony Hall

Elgar's In the South is a tone-poem of Straussian stature and texture, and the performance it received from the CBSO under John Wilson's elegant and encouraging baton on Wednesday was both full-blooded and insightful, generously phrased and perceptively fleet of detail.

There was both exuberance and mystery here, and some remarkable solo contributions, not just the famous Canto Popolare (Christopher Yates' viola solo tenderly delivered, despite a slightly over-emphatic harp accompaniment, Elspeth Dutch's horn gently responding), but -- and perhaps this is a 'first' -- also the terrifying bass drum which launched the vision of striding Roman armies.

But the piece stood out like a sore-thumb inclusion in what was generally a light music programme of British classics, every offering shorter than this. Admittedly we had begun with other composers from the more 'serious' orchestral canon, a fizzing Walton Johannesburg Festival Overture sparkling with personality, the Intermezzo from Delius' Fennimore and Gerda melting with interchanges between flute and oboe, and opened the second half with a decidedly Schubertian approach to Sullivan's Yeomen of the Guard Overture; the rest, however, was salon music of the highest order, and performed with the respect and relish it deserves.

Edward German's Romeo and Juliet Nocturne's gorgeous melody found the CBSO strings in luscious mode, Haydn Wood's London Cameos Suite had delightful moments (horns and trumpets interchanging, Delian birdsongs, singing cellos in the delightful concluding State Ball), and Vivien Ellis' wonderful Coronation Scot had gripping harp figurations as the train wheels drove ever onwards in this British equivalent of Honegger's vivid Pacific 231.

Robert Farnon's impressionistic Lake of the Woods was one item too far, however, and seemed out of context -- though we did enjoy the arabesques of flute and clarinet.

Roderick Williams was the star soloist, bringing an entirely different voice from the one which had probed into Schubert's Die Schone Mullerin for Malvern Concert Club a few days earlier. Here, in items by Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Eric Coates and Stanford he projected persuasively and inclusively, even in this vast auditorium, and without a microphone (heaven forbid), though the heavy CBSO brass did overbalance him in the final number.

His outstanding offering brought more Haydn Wood, the ineffable Roses of Picardy. Difficult to strip the song of its Great War connotations, but it in fact tells a story of a life-long love, and Roddy's performance here surely brought tears to more eyes than mine.

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