CBSO Stravinsky Project

Scherzo fantastique
Concerto in D (Basle)
Symphony of Psalms
The Firebird [Original 1910 Version]

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 June, 2005
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Performing the complete works of Igor Stravinsky is not to be undertaken lightly, though this is just what the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – together with local arts organisations such as Birmingham Royal Ballet and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group – intends to do over the next three or four seasons. This concert saw the CBSO launching its contribution to the project, with a programme that surveyed the composer’s catalogue over some 35 years in intriguing and thought-provoking fashion.

It opened with what might be described as Stravinsky’s most characteristic early work, in that the Scherzo fantastique (1908) – whatever its allegiances to Rimsky-Korsakov and, harmonically, early Scriabin in the raptly expressive central section – is already personal in its iridescent orchestration and the manner in which Stravinsky reprises his initial material almost as a sonata-form through the ‘back door’. Sakari Oramo secured a performance whose airy momentum and dynamic restraint suited the music to a tee.

It was a tribute to its efficacy that the Concerto in D for strings (1946) which followed felt less like the work of another composer than might have been expected. Written for Paul Sacher’s Collegium Basle, this compact piece is closer to Vivaldi than Bach in its rhythmic agility and harmonic astringency: qualities that Oramo duly brought out, giving the music a depth and ambiguity that look beyond its neo-baroque antecedents to the bracing Concertino of a quarter-century earlier. Now that the contrasts in Stravinsky’s output have been absorbed over time, the opportunity to explore its many and varied connections is perhaps the most valuable aspect of so inclusive a retrospective.

Symphony of Psalms (1930) is among the defining masterpieces of that output: a touchstone of non-specific spirituality with few subsequent parallels and fewer, if any, equals. Oramo’s account seemed a shade detached in the powerfully cumulative opening movement, but the woodwind fugue that precedes the setting of “Expectans expectavi” had the right balance of severity and anticipation that directed the choral continuation to an ominous culmination. It is possible to draw even greater incisiveness from the first half of “Alleluia, laudate Dominum”, but the sense of music subsequently reaching out towards eternity was palpably realised – with the dense yet luminous wind textures that resonate overhead intently effected. Indeed, and laudable as was the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, the instrumental clarity evident throughout this performance was its greatest strength.

The Firebird inevitably had to be included, and in its original ballet incarnation. The CBSO gave some memorable performances of this with Simon Rattle in years past, and it was a tribute to Oramo that his account, while eschewing the sheer immediacy of his predecessor, had a cohesiveness as made the whole work seem more integrated and ‘necessary’ than others – not least the composer – have supposed. Many of its highpoints were in those passages generally thought superfluous outside of the ballet context: thus the pensive transition between ‘Firebird’s Supplication’ (sensuously restrained) and ‘Game with the Golden Apples’ (deftly articulated), or the sequence depicting Ivan’s capture and interrogation. In particular, that of the Firebird’s re-appearance had a charge that sustained itself effortlessly through the ‘Infernal Dance’ – yet did not detract from the expressive intensity of the ‘Berceuse’, or the breathless hush from which emerges the ‘Apotheosis’. Incisively rendered, this capped a reading whose undemonstrative conviction encouraged one to reassess the work afresh.

As, indeed, did this concert of Stravinsky’s music as a whole – launching the CBSO’s contribution to a project which is likely to become a centrepiece of Birmingham’s artistic life during the years ahead.

  • Concert repeated on 18 June; box office: 0121 780 3333
  • Further Stravinsky concerts on June 19 (BCMG) and 22 (CBSO)
  • CBSO

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