CBSO New Season – 24 September

Gefaltete Zeit [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto, Op.15
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Janine Jansen (violin)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 24 September, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The first concert of the CBSO’s new season opened with a new work – albeit not the Richard Causton premiere initially scheduled. That will hopefully take place next season – but, having been given its world premiere by the orchestra in Lucerne this summer, Isabel Mundry’s Gefaltete Zeit was an ideal replacement.

40 this year, German composer Mundry is as yet little known in the UK. In its compacted, relativist incident, ’Folded Time’ has a speculative quality akin to Hans Zender (Mundry’s teacher for two years) or Matthias Pintscher. It is also the nine-minute overture to an in-progress opera based around the Odyssey myth; the sense of textures coalescing as they gain velocity, only to return to their initial stasis, suggests an abstract process to be given dramatic – or at least theatrical – treatment in the larger work. The three orchestral layers, distinct in timbre and spatially separated on the platform, merge atmospherically in due anticipation of the opera to come.

An oblique but not inappropriate entrée into the 1939 Violin Concerto by Benjamin Britten, the most intense of his pre-war works and one still surprisingly underestimated – even in a golden decade of concertos for the instrument. With its plain but memorable motifs and resourceful handling of the slow-fast-slow format, there’s a high degree of overall coherence too; something that Janine Jansen’s involved but unflashy performance conveyed in full measure.

Ably partnered by Oramo, there were many felicitous touches: the melting transition back to the main theme in the first movement; the alternation of incisiveness and yearning in the Bartókian scherzo – culminating in a charged account of the (composed) cadenza; and a passacaglia whose pervading sense of tragedy does not preclude either scintillating virtuosity or tender expression. With the instrumentation some of Britten’s most resourceful to employ a full orchestra, the apex of the variation sequence was powerfully wrought – though not so much that the coda did not cap the whole work in a mingling of grief and resignation. Whether inspired more by knowledge of the ’world situation’ or the ambiguity of his own place within it, the concerto remains a highpoint of Britten’s career, with a lack of emotional inhibition he was seldom to approach again in the orchestral domain.

Uninhibitedness is equally fundamental to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, doubt and uncertainty being transcended into expression defiant and life-affirming. There are many interpretative possibilities here, and Oramo’s were – for the most part – convincing. Momentum in the opening ’Allegro’ was finely controlled, bringing out the resourcefulness of Beethoven’s thematic thinking such that the coda felt not merely an ending but an arrival. If the ’Marcia funèbre’ lacked this degree of overall coherence, such details as the bassoon’s heralding of the central fugato and the motivic fragmentation of the coda were tellingly brought out, in a traversal eschewing the lachrymose quality often grafted onto the movement. The Scherzo, shimmering and ebullient – with only fleetingly shaky horns in the trio – was perfectly judged, Oramo rightly plunging straight into the finale’s introductory tutti. Building carefully but never didactically, the ’Prometheus’ theme went through its variational adventures with poise and purpose, leading to a proud but restrained apotheosis and a trenchantly energetic coda.

In the pre-concert talk, Oramo spoke of the symphony as one where the conductor can never be sure how the music gets to where it is going. Tonight’s performance reminded one how, in this symphonic odyssey, expressive ends are motivated by musical means to an unprecedented and still startling degree.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 29 September at 7.30
  • CBSO

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