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Review: Elgar's Second, CBSO, at the Symphony Hall

This concert from the CBSO goes onto the shortlist for highlight of the year.

Performances of the quality we heard tonight do not deserve the niggardly audience which braved the city centre's hostility of access and punitive parking charges. Symphony Hall and Town Hall must surely be suffering both in terms of finance and morale through the diminishing number of patrons.

But those heroes who did brave it through the infrastructure nightmare were rewarded with a concert from the CBSO which certainly goes onto the shortlist for highlight of the year, Edward Gardner, coming towards the end of his extended period as principal guest conductor, presiding over a tempting all-English programme.

Nodding towards Shakespeare's 400th anniversary, we began with the Prelude Walton composed for Olivier's film of Richard III, music surely far too noble for such bloodthirsty derring-do, nevertheless confidently, warmly delivered here.

Walton at his more authentic followed, with Lawrence Power the engaging soloist in the melancholy Viola Concerto, shaping a poignant characterisation from his eloquent instrument.

At times his tone was appropriately bluesy, at others his rhythmic attack was as biting as though playing Prokofiev, and the lovely ending brought us near to Elgarian wistfulness.

Which we then heard in abundance, in the most perfectly-judged performance of Elgar's nostalgic Second Symphony I think I have ever heard. Compared with Gardner's subtle reading, memories of Boult seemed too literal, Barbirolli too head-pattingly indulgent; here Gardner set flexible tempi, discreetly encouraged significant instrumental lines (the horns were understatedly magnificent, the double-basses noble), and to the slow movement's threnody brought mystery as well as inner grief.

There was a prolonged hush at the end of the work's twilit coda. Then time to go home and savour the programme-note penned by our greatest writer on Elgar, the late and much-missed Michael Kennedy.

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