CBSO/Storgårds Barbara Hannigan [Mahler, Britten & Shostakovich]

Mahler (attributed)
Symphonic Prelude in C minor
Les illuminations, Op.18
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 June, 2009
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

John StorgårdsFor his debut with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, John Storgårds conducted a neatly-balanced programme featuring contemporaneous works by composers who knew and admired each other’s music, alongside a piece by one for whom both these composers expressed great admiration.

That said, the Symphonic Prelude (circa 1876) may not be by Mahler. Found among the posthumous papers of his colleague Rudolf Krzyzanowski (best known for having collaborated with the teenage Mahler on a piano-duet transcription of Bruckner’s Third Symphony), it has been attributed both to Mahler and his teacher Bruckner. Most probably, the main themes were outlined by Bruckner, who then entrusted the project to one of his students – Mahler being the most likely candidate. Whatever the case, the densely translucent orchestration, quirky yet focused approach to form and, above all, the restlessly impulsive course travelled in just eight minutes suggest an apprentice unafraid to make a statement; a marker, perhaps, for the ‘rites of passage’ initiated two years later in “Das klagende Lied”. Intensely felt and convincingly unfolded, Storgårds and the CBSO made the most of this unlikely curtain-raiser.

Mahler was a sometime-preoccupation for the young Britten, though it is more the influence of Berg detectable in his song-cycle “Les illuminations” (1938). These settings of the wayward adolescent (and later mercenary) Arthur Rimbaud constitute the composer’s first masterpiece (and one of his most enduring), and call for a soloist able to convey the many nuances of feeling that Britten draws from his texts. Barbara Hannigan was a shade too imperious in the opening ‘Fanfares’, but thereafter her insight was hardly to be faulted. Thus the fervid imaginings of ‘Villes’, spellbinding calm of ‘Phrase’ and chaste poise of ‘Antique’. ‘Royauté’ had portentous humour and ‘Marine’ a lithe energy, before the evocative aura of ‘Interlude’ and the rapt sensuousness of ‘Being Beauteous’. ‘Parade’ brought the main sequence to a commanding peak, then ‘Départ’ offered a recessional of inward resignation.

Throughout, Storgårds (a professional violinist, like the CBSO’s former Music Director Sakari Oramo), secured attentive and imaginative playing from the strings, and went on to give a convincing account of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony (1937). Right from the initial ‘motto’, the opening movement was finely paced so that its main themes – subtly contrasted in character – were brought into productive accord; the apex of intensity coming exactly at the point where the reprise is climactically launched. The scherzo was as bluffly engaging as its trio was deftly ironic, then the slow movement combined heartfelt expression with a formal lucidity to a degree rarely matched. Nor did the finale’s perceived ideological conflict beset its interpretation here: strident determination and musing speculation giving rise to a peroration the more affirmative for its eschewing both false triumph and rhetorical despair.

A fine showing, then, for the CBSO as it nears the end of the current season and a success, too, for Storgårds in a worthwhile variation on the three-work concert all too rarely encountered these days. Hopefully the warmth of the CBSO’s response will see him return to Symphony Hall before long.

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