CBSO/Oramo – Julian Anderson Premiere (4 December)

Symphony [Birmingham premiere]
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125 (Choral)

Alwyn Mellor (soprano)
Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano)
Timothy Robinson (tenor)
Clive Bayley (bass)

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 December, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Putting the word ’symphony’ at the head of a composition has not generally been the preferred option among composers in recent decades. And yet, leaving aside the weight of precedent and raising of anticipation, what if the work itself evolves in a way such that it fulfils certain principals that make that designation the only one possible? Julian Anderson arrived at this conclusion while writing his latest piece as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Composer-in-Association: Symphony duly receiving its second performance at this concert (after the world premiere at Warwick on 3 December).

The initial inspiration, “Morning by a Lake” by Finnish artist (and contemporary of Sibelius) Axel Gallen, seems extra-musical – and non-symphonic – enough. But the content of the canvas, with fissures of ice crossing the lake’s surface so that it seems to be in the process of unfreezing, offers an abstract and inherently symphonic procedure. So it proves over the 18-minute course of Anderson’s piece, which evolves as organically and as inevitably as a post-Sibelian symphony ought to do.

Although playing continuously, the work passes through numerous formal subdivisions – how many depends on how it is listened to. While Anderson’s programme note indicates 12 possible sections, in accordance with the music’s overall dynamic and rhythmic trajectory, it is possible to hear Symphonyas an extensive sonata-form movement; with the rapid alternation of slow and scherzo-like episodes towards its centre as a development of the ideas – a harmonic progression rising upwards through the bass, culminating in an animated chorale – preceding them. This ’exposition’, preceded by a slow introduction where the melodic and harmonic components emerge gradually into audibility, is then drastically compressed and reprised in the final minutes – presaging a coda whose chords distil the harmonic momentum of the whole work, followed by the spiralling conclusiveness of the closing bars.

Yet at whatever level one listens to the work, its formal cohesiveness and tonal subtlety – the latter extended by the presence of solo flute, clarinet and (sampled) piano tuned a quarter-tone below the rest of the orchestra – are satisfyingly audible: due in part to a performance which combined insight and intensity to an often remarkable degree. Time will tell, but the piece seems likely to take its place among a handful of first symphonies (sic) that set out a viable symphonism for its composer’s future. Certainly, it would be surprising were this Symphony not to have successors.

Which makes the juxtaposition with Beethoven 9 the more relevant. After an often impressive Eroica two months ago, and a spirited First two seasons back (a concert featuring the world premiere of Imagin’d Corners – Anderson’s first CBSO commission), Oramo’s Beethoven credentials are undoubted, and were consolidated this evening. True, the first two movements lacked a degree of flexibility in their headlong drive: in the Allegro, this meant a sense of rushing towards rather than arriving at climaxes, leavening the cross-rhythmic interplay crucial to the development, as well as minimising the ’maestro’ qualification; in the Scherzo (all repeats observed), where contrapuntal detail was often blurred, little room was left for accelerating into the faster Trio section – thus giving the impression of proceeding at the same basic tempo throughout.

In both movements, however, Oramo’s favouring of a weightier string sound than the post-authentic norm projected the music’s physical impact convincingly, while ensuring the variational intricacies of the Adagio followed through with easeful inevitability. Come the finale, and Oramo conveyed the introduction’s summing-up with evident appreciation of the formal and aesthetic issues at stake. The “Ode to Joy” theme felt a little harassed – thereafter, Oramo steered the movement, and its intriguing synthesis of sonata and variation procedures, with no mean clarity. Solo singing (Alwyn Mellor standing in for an indisposed Valdine Anderson) was secure and insightful, both individually and collectively; and what looked to be a reduced CBS Chorus conveyed the ringing affirmation and, at the close of the “Seid umschlungen” section, hushed mystery of Schiller’s verse with powerful intent.

For all its flaws, then, this was an account that left one in no doubt as to the continued relevance of Beethoven’s vision – as, indeed, did the concert about the continued relevance of symphonic thinking.

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