CBSO/Oramo concert – 6th December

Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV564
Return, oh God of hosts! (Samson)
Blest be the Lord … What though I trace each herb and flow’r (Solomon)
Some dire event … Scenes of horror (Jephtha)
Vaughan Williams
Job – A Masque for Dancing

David Goode (organ)
Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 December, 2001
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

A concert with pronounced religious connotations – in as much as all Bach’s music has a religious or at least a spiritual dimension – and an excellent opportunity to hear the recently-installed Symphony Hall organ in action.

The Toccata, Adagio and Fugue is perhaps Bach’s most inclusive demonstration of organ technique, and the expressive qualities to be drawn from it. The robust rhetoric of the opening ’Toccata’ leads to a pensive ’Adagio’ in which melody, harmony and rhythmic accompaniment are brought together with absolute poise, before the ’Fugue’ links the motivic strands with fluid momentum. David Goode conveyed the incisive clarity of the instrument with assurance, making light of some demanding pedal work, though a greater sense of scale and impact in the ’Fugue’ would not have gone amiss.

Although Handel’s oratorios have come into their own as viable entities during the last quarter-century, they still provide a vast resource for soloists looking to assemble a sequence of arias for recital purposes. With her rich, pliable mezzo timbre and unforced phrasing, Jane Irwin is a natural in this repertoire, and the three items chosen worked well in context. The restrained dignity of Micah’s aria from Samson, Solomon’s gracious acknowledgement of divine beneficence and, from Jephtha, Storgé’s vivid intimations of disaster – all brought off with restrained, imaginative artistry complemented by the subtle variety of string timbre Oramo drew from a Handelian-strength ensemble.

A self-confessed agnostic, Vaughan Williams remains among the deepest-thinking and spiritually-probing of twentieth-century composers. Job occupies a central position in his output. Somewhere between the concrete representation of his operas, the discursive nature of his choral works, and the abstraction of his symphonies, it also embodies many of the abrasive qualities that would dominate his music over the decade of the 1930s. Whether or not the one-act ballets of Stravinsky and Prokofiev had an intrinsic influence on Job’s conception, their stylistic presence is detectable in the freedom with which the orchestra is used to depict Job’s ordeal in the test of endurance played out between God and Satan.

Having previously conducted striking – and strikingly idiomatic – performances of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies, Oramo reaffirmed his credentials in Vaughan Williams with an unerringly paced and lucid account of what can often seem a sectional ’masque for dancing’. Not that its ballet origins were played down, rather the themes and clearly-defined motifs which provide coherence were set within the context of a score rich in incident and illustrative detail.

The beatific calm of the ’Introduction’ and ’Epilogue’; the percussive angularity of ’Satan’s Dance’; the wheedling nature of ’Job’s comforters’; the apocalyptic ’Vision of Satan’ occupying God’s throne, the organ making its presence felt in no uncertain terms; the ravishing dance of Elihu, its prominent violin solo elegantly played by Jacqueline Hartley; and Satan’s vanquishing before the triumphal peroration before the opening music returns: these were the highpoints of a reading that lacked only the last degree of visionary intensity to make what was a memorable interpretation a great one.

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