The last-minute indisposition of Constantinos Carydis saw Pablo González take the helm for this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which meant the loss of Skalkottas’s Four Images (hopefully another occasion?) for the Overture to May Night (1879). This second of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas is seldom revived in the West though its starter, touching on several of the main themes within its succinct formal proportions, makes for an attractive curtain-raiser; not least in so deft and astutely judged a performance as here.
Itself a work which fell from prominence during the latter twentieth-century, Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain (1915) has returned to favour. Less a Concerto than a Sinfonia concertante in terms of its interplay between piano and orchestra, there is no reason why this should equate to vagary of form. This reading was notable for its precision across and between movements – Javier Perianes melding into a discourse that brought out the ominous undertow of the opening ‘Generalife’, followed by an animated take on the intermezzo-like ‘Danza lejana’ then a surging account of the ‘Córdoba’ Finale with its elements of fandango and cante jondo vividly realised. Perianes returned for further Falla, the ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ from El amor brujo (Love, the Magician) – no less evocative in transcription when played so scintillatingly.
Following the interval came Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1886 re-working of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain from two decades earlier. A pity this more radical evocation of nefarious activities on St John’s Eve had to be substituted, but the piece as heard still packs a fair punch and González gave the CBSO its head in an account as attentive to detail as to the fantasia-like structure. Not its least attraction was a thoughtful approach to the coda, tender and affecting without a hint of that sentimentality such as Mussorgsky would have abjured.
From here to Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) is but a small step aesthetically, and González (conducting without score) audibly enjoyed conducting it in the acoustic of Symphony Hall. Ravel’s 1922 orchestration has had its detractors, not least those who thought he was writing out of character so as to please Serge Koussevitzky, and it is true the scoring can take on the abstraction of a ‘concerto for orchestra’ rather than bringing out the realism of Mussorgsky’s initial inspirations. That said, the music’s unity and cumulative impact was never in doubt as it took in (inter alia) an irascible ‘Gnomus’, seismic ‘Bydlo’ and plangent ‘Catacombae’ prior to a vaunting ‘Baba Yaga’ then a ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ that built steadily and securely to its resplendent close. Job well done.