Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra
Adrian Boult Hall
Welsh National Opera
Birmingham Hippodrome * * * *
Review by Christopher Morley
Symphony Hall witnessed an exciting debut on Thursday when the young Israeli pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar joined the CBSO in Beethoven's imposing Emperor Concerto.
Always revealing a humble awareness that the music's greatness comes first, performing egos nowhere, Ashkar played with a quiet authority, calmly delivering Beethoven's amazingly imaginative pianistic writing, Foster and the CBSO collaborating with a refreshing acuteness of response.
There was a finely-honed sense of drama and structure in this account, everything coming together at the end with Peter Hill's delicate timpani underscoring Ashkar's final quiet ruminations before a clinching ending. Music of an entirely different provenance furnished the second half, "Spanish" works by Ravel drawing magical colours and tightly-woven rhythms from Foster's orchestra.
Rapsodie Espagnole, Pavane pour une Infante Defunte and Alborada del Gracioso all cast their Iberian perfumes, but it was the Bolero, heroically underpinned by snare-drummer Adrian Spillett, which will live most in the memory: so many instrumental solos wonderfully delivered, and such an easy but tight grip on this crescendo-ing structure by Lawrence Foster.
On Friday it was the turn of the Adrian Boult Hall to host an attractive concert showcasing rising young talents, in this case the gifted students of Birmingham Conservatoire celebrating the Hall's 20th anniversary and its recent refurbishment.
Coming up as bright as a new pin – too bright for some tastes – the ABH was described by the UCEBirmingham chairman of the governors as "a jewel in the crown", and I can vouch that a very senior person from Symphony Hall was impressed with its accessories, too, including very effective closed-circuit television for stewarding purposes.
Appropriately the evening began with Britten's Building of the House Overture, a busy bee of a piece which brought opportunities for the sonorous young voices of the Conservatoire Chorus as well as the skilful Symphony Orchestra conducted (at very short notice) by John Lubbock.
An infinitely greater piece of English music, Elgar's First Symphony, concluded proceedings, meticulously prepared and given with immense maturity by these young players. Here indeed is "massive hope for the future".
Lubbock's tempo-relationships were perfectly judged, intonation and tone needed no allowances made, with a sensitivity of phrasing apparent from the strings right down to the timpani and percussion.
Between these two offerings came the heartrending beauty of Strauss' Four Last Songs. Post-graduate soprano Sarah Cotterill brought a gratifying depth of understanding to this valediction of a saddened old man, her gently radiant persona matching the texts’ serene acceptance. Her tones were warm, confiding and intimate, but with her young voice still a touch on the small side for these lush textures, so beautifully delivered by the BCSO. This neo-Wagnerian writing leads naturally to consideration of Tristan und Isolde, Wagner's enigmatic exploration of love and death almost as much an influence on subsequent philosophical thought as on musical posterity.
Saturday's WNO revival of this awesome vast masterpiece in Yannis Kokkos' spare but searching production focussed our attention, as all the best productions do, on the meat of the music and the libretto.
There were a few stunning visual images, notably the sailors atop rigging and rope-ladders as Tristan's ship bearing Isolde to King Marke docked at the end of Act I; Isolde's maid Brangane, touching and affecting from Susan Bickley, keeping a lonely nocturnal watch as her mistress trysted illicitly with Tristan; and the concluding tableau as Isolde (the magnificent, utterly convincing Annalena Persson) sang her transfiguring Liebestod.
The real star was the orchestra, rhythmically alive and spontaneous under Mark Wigglesworth's baton which reached down into great depths of rich sound, and which the Hippodrome acoustic accommodated so comfortably.Christopher Morley
Tristan himself has come in for some stick for a certain lack of charisma, but certainly in this performance John Mac Master (sic) was never less than efficient, and often deeply moving. Smaller parts were uniformly well taken, including Robert Hayward's refreshingly vulnerable Kurwenal and Alfred Reiter's dignified King Marke.
But the real star of this long evening which sped by was the orchestra, always rhythmically alive and spontaneous under Mark Wigglesworth's baton which reached down into great depths of rich sound, and which the Hippodrome acoustic accommodated so comfortably.