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Review: Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at Adrian Boult Hall

The trouble with compiling a completist programme is that you might well end up with a dud in the necessity to make up the numbers, and this was certainly the case with at least one of the offerings in the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra's exposition of works by "The Mighty Handful".

The trouble with compiling a completist programme is that you might well end up with a dud in the necessity to make up the numbers, and this was certainly the case with at least one of the offerings in the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra's exposition of works by "The Mighty Handful".

These five Russian composers did so much to promote the nationalistic music of their country during the second half of the 19th century under the zealous direction of their leader Mily Balakirev, more of an ideas man than a composer of any lasting significance, as evidenced by his symphonic poem Tamara.

This mildly erotic story-line is more remarkable for the totally coincidental intimations of far greater composers, such as Smetana’s water-imagery and the Salome -like seductiveness of its quasi-oriental oboe solo. Conductor Richard Laing did his best for the piece, even touching up the orchestration, and pacing its dark mutterings convincingly; but the piece doesn’t know when to stop. And Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Festival Overture is equally stop-start, bogged down in Russian plainchant interspersed with perky syncopated passages. Laing guided his willing, valiant players through its demanding scoring, and it was good to end up with the happy tintinnabulations with which it blessedly concludes.

But the real dud was Cui’s Tarantella, a galumphing piece of attempted froth whose heavy textures were neatly negotiated by Laing and the BPO.

Laing’s spoken introductions were concise, witty and apposite, but in fact the works topping and tailing the afternoon needed no advocacy. Glazunov’s realisation of Borodin’s well-imagined Prince Igor Overture never fails to cast its exotic spell, even in a reading as marginally noisy as this (fabulous clarinet solos, though), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s peerless orchestration (why do we need any other?) made a tremendous effect, well-weighted and crammed with character.

Particularly fine was the trumpet section, led by Greg McEwan with masses of confident aplomb both on the “normal” instrument and the shrillingly querulous piccolo version. Nice printed programme, too, with reproductions of Hartmann’s inspirational paintings - though the mud-dragging Bydlo movement went undescribed in the notes.

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