Shakespeare was the context for Thursday’s CBSO concert, even, tenuously, connected with Samuel Barber, who composed the less than totally successful opera Antony and Cleopatra Barber’s Violin Concerto, earlier by 26 years, is an established favourite in the 20th-century repertoire, moving from rapturous pastoral dreaminess to busy, big-city perpetual motion, and the soloist here, Anne Akiko Meyers, brought singing, shapely phrases and sweet persuasive tone to all its ruminations.
And in the non-stop finale her stamina was simply stunning, exploiting to the full the resources of her magnificent Stradivarius which was well able to ride the roller-coaster of Andrew Litton’s enthusiastic orchestra.
Sandwiching the Barber were two authentically Shakespearean works, beginning with the suite from Walton’s fabulous score for Laurence Olivier’s wartime film of Henry V. Litton drew a vivid and engrossing reading from this huge orchestra which seems unable to play at less than superlative form (the Nelsons effect), and there were some wonderful solos as well, flute and cor anglais among them.
Surtitled movements here were even more valuable for an extended sequence of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet.
We hear this tremendous music far too frequently these days, but any fear of overfamiliarity was dispelled by the sheer subtlety and power of this account. Andrew Litton’s balletic movements on the podium may have evoked John Sergeant in Strictly Come Dancing, but they summoned a colourful, energetic kaleidoscope of sound from the players.
The CBSO was in action again on Saturday when it collaborated with the City of Birmingham Choir and its guests, the Bristol Choral Society, in Beethoven’s mighty Missa Solemnis, Adrian Lucas conducting with effective economy of gesture.
Beethoven’s gawky scoring (at this late period in his life he’d gone way beyond convention) is matched, and even exceeded, by the taxing demands he puts upon his singers – not just the operatically-styled soloists, but also the humble amateur choristers. And it was the two choirs which garnered all the glory, with fearless repeated attacks on cruel top notes and cavernous bass ones, this huge corpus of singers deftly mirroring orchestral textures, and hurling out the rather gimmicky Germanicised Latin pronunciation imposed upon them.
The youthful solo quartet was well-matched and adequate to the task, but mezzo Hannah Pedley deserves singling out for the warmth, projection and personality of her contributions.