Symphony No. 3 The Camp Meeting Beethoven
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67
Imogen Cooper (piano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
CBSO/Wolff 14 January
Tuesday, January 14, 2003 Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
2003, and the start of what looks to be the first cycle of Charles Ivess symphonies by a British (perhaps any?) orchestra. Beginning out of sequence with the Third Symphony makes sense as this 22-minute work, scored for modest forces (the only symphony where the timpanist doubles on tubular bells?) stands on the threshold of Ivess maturity yet is accessible to the first-time listener.
Not that the work is at all conventional in the classical sense, as it
derives from hymn-tunes treated from a number of contrapuntal and harmonic perspectives, ensuring a formal unity both across and between movements. The sonata-form solidity of Old Folks Gatherin, scherzo-like playfulness of Childrens Day, and passacaglia-like formal inevitability of Communion belie the (typically for Ives) protracted genesis between 1901 and 04, with
further revision around 1909-10 when a New York premiere by the ailing Mahler looked a tantalising probability. That the work had to wait until 1946 for its public unveiling was a tragedy for Ives in particular and American symphonism in general.
Hugh Wolff conducted a performance firm in focus and strong on atmosphere. Never plodding and commendably spacious in the opening Andante maestoso, he brought a Mozartian grace to the folksy Allegro, then conveyed the pathos and nostalgia of the Largo without sentimentality. A few less string desks might have allowed a fraction more clarity, but an intriguingly diatonic
dissonance in what is effectively the original version of the symphony came through persuasively. As the bells rang on into silence at the close, a thoughtful hush around Symphony Hall was undeniable.
Following its modest impact with a double whammy of C minor Beethoven might seem unwise, but the latter works complemented each other and the Ives surprisingly well. Few present-day pianists make so unforced a sound as Imogen Cooper perceptive in the raptly unfolding phrases of the central
Largo, but sounding a little enervated elsewhere. Trenchantly delivered, the opening Allegro lacked intensity at such key points as the hurtling descent into the reprise or the timpani-powered beginning of the coda (one of the moments in all Beethoven). The closing Rondo had the right quixotic vigour, though again the coda could have had a greater sense of release. For
all its insights, this was a performance less than the sum of its often-impressive parts.
Judging by the lacklustre efforts of many present-day conductors, the Fifth Symphony is a work now approached with trepidation. If not revelatory, Wolffs account was a satisfying one. The (in)famous Allegro con brio had drive and resilience while, if certain subtleties in phrasing and dynamics were passed over, the Andante avoided the mannerisms which so often disfigure its eloquent outline. Wolff rightly took the repeat in the Scherzo a touch more cumulative intensity second time around would have vindicated it beyond doubt and steered a propulsive course through the Finale, lucidly paced and life-enhancing in equal measure. That a conductor can tackle this work without fear of inhibition or caution bordering on the apologetic is not to be taken for granted these days!