Ben Gernon. Credit: Petra Hajská/Czech Philharmonic

CBSO French Connections

Bologne
L’Amant anonyme – Overture (1780)
Britten
Les Illuminations, Op.18 (1939)
Haydn
Symphony No.84 in E-flat (1786)

Mary Bevan (soprano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Ben Gernon

Recorded on Wednesday 2 December 2020 and broadcast on Thursday 14 January 2021


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 January, 2021
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

There may have been no musical car chases in this first online concert of 2021 by the CBSO, but neither was there any lack of eventfulness during a programme that centred on French-connected music from the late-eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries.

Eventful is surely apposite in the instance of Joseph Bologne, better known as Chavalier de Saint-Georges, who enjoyed a successful career as violinist and composer (and swordsman) either side of the French Revolution. The only one of his operas to have survived complete, The Anonymous Lover features an overture whose symphonic potency was recognised by the composer. Not least a speculative section as points up contrast with the rhythmic impetus of those framing it, the latter purposefully developing salient motifs on route to a resolute close.

His brief life taking in episodes as a bohemian and arms-dealer, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91) was no slouch when living life to the full. His main (also last) collection of poems inspired what is arguably Britten’s finest earlier work – the song-cycle Les Illuminations. Often sung by a tenor, it gains demonstrably in expressive potency when rendered by a soprano – Mary Bevan projecting the rhetorical fervour of ‘Villes’ or eloquent allure of ‘Antique’ as persuasively as the simmering ecstasy of ‘Being Beauteous’ or the fevered imaginings of ‘Parade’. Directing the strings of the CBSO with no mean insight, Ben Gernon caught exactly the right note of resignation in ‘Départ’ – the final song which lies outside the emotional orbit of what went before, and whose gradual evanescence continues after the soloist’s fatalistic closing phrase.

Such introspection was duly dispelled by the earnest introduction then lithe opening Allegro of Haydn’s Eighty-Fourth Symphony, the third of his ‘Paris’ series and one whose premiere Saint-Georges likely directed. Gernon made the most of an Andante whose variations venture into unexpected terrain tonally, then a Minuet whose rusticity was an ideal foil to the urbane wit and (not for the last time) formal high-jinks of the closing Vivace. Here, as throughout this piece, both woodwind and horns made the most of some of Haydn’s most felicitous writing.

An elegant and engaging launch of the CBSO’s activities near the start of a new year, and one that continues later this month with a programme conducted by Michael Seal – featuring music from Berlioz and Ravel – together with the most Dionysian among Beethoven’s Symphonies.

Concert available until Friday 12 February at https://cbso.co.uk/event/french-connections

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