Imagin’d Corners
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

Paul Watkins (cello)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 April, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Although his period as Composer-in-Residence with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra ended last summer, Julian Anderson’s last commission for the orchestra had yet to be played at its home base. Thus it was that Eden (2005), first heard at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, began this concert. The title is less descriptive than indicative of a mood – which, taken in conjunction with the ‘Homage to Brancusi’ subtitle (the Rumanian sculptor’s “The Kiss” influencing the music at a technical as well as a conceptual level), is one of remembered innocence no less ecstatic for its sense of unreality.

Formally, the work is straightforward – the ruminative opening melodies for viola and cello leading to a brief orchestral upsurge; the process then repeated so that a vast but diaphanous climax is reached – after which, the music quickly evaporates into silence. Texturally, it continues on from the dense but translucent soundworld of Anderson’s other recent CBSO commissions – yet here, the use of non-tempered (natural) harmonics permeates all aspects of the musical discourse, which evolves through modulating between overtones rather as a substitute for the key relationships of classical tonality. Combined with the resources of the modern orchestra, this is an area rich in potential, and one looks forward to future compositions – not least from Anderson – that exploit it on a more extended scale.

The contrast of ‘just’ and ‘equal’ tunings is integral to Anderson’s first CBSO commission, Imagin’d Corners (2002), which makes an admirable foil to Eden when played – as here – as the second part of an informal diptych. Fluid and dynamic in comparison with the newer piece’s hieratic grandeur, its evolution in space as well as in time – with four of the five obbligato horns moving from offstage to centre-stage and finally antiphonal positions, mirroring the formal and expressive trajectory of the music – was palpably realised, and with an impressive absence of inhibition. Something that bodes well for the forthcoming disc of all five of Anderson’s CBSO-related works, due from NMC later this year.

The remainder of the concert was of more standard fare, unexpectedly but imaginatively juxtaposed. Admittedly Elgar’s Cello Concerto took a while to settle: the first movement felt a little calculated in its pathos, with Paul Watkins seeming unsure just how to bridge the objective/subjective divide. The scherzo, though, was a delight – the transition pertly done, the music lightly sprung with enough wit to keep it on its toes. Winsomely phrased, the Adagio (a ‘song without words’ the more profound for its brevity) could have delved more deeply, but the finale brought out the best in Watkins – its forward momentum deftly propelled, with enough in reserve for a climax of true expressive fervour, and a biting return to the opening that brought the work brusquely full circle. Loaded with emotional baggage as it has been in recent years, this is a concerto sorely in need of fresh interpretative angles: Watkins may have gone only part of the way here, but he is demonstrably on the right track.

The news that Sakari Oramo is to step down as Music Director of the CBSO in two years’ time (while continuing as Principal Guest Conductor) merited a range of responses: suffice here to say that, in terms of its responsiveness as an ensemble, the orchestra has surely never been in such fine shape as now – Oramo not only having consolidated but built on the legacy of the Rattle years.

Thus it was that a showpiece such as Scheherazade could emerge newly minted, with the depiction of the sea and Sinbad proceeding as a single sweep of intensity, and the colourful machinations of Prince Kalender evincing almost symphonic momentum. The contrasting evocation of the prince and princess was appealingly done, such that the movement only fractionally outstayed its welcome, while the main portion of the finale generated excitement at not too headlong a tempo – the drama of the climax capped, as it needs to be, with the wistful tones of a story completed and a mission fulfilled.

Superb playing from all departments of the orchestra – and a characterful contribution, sensuous and stealthy by turns, from guest-leader Laurence Jackson – made this a performance to remember. Oramo has achieved a great deal with the CBSO over the past eight years, such as the final two years of his tenure will hopefully see taken on to an even higher level of attainment.

  • Concert repeated Saturday 29 April, with John Foulds’s April-England instead of Anderson items
  • CBSO

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