CBSO/Volmer – 13 November

Introduction and Allegro, Op.47
Piano Concerto in B flat
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Peter Donohoe (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Arvo Volmer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 November, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Having chosen a veritable ’war-horse’ – Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto – for the first of his 50th-birthday concerts with the CBSO, Peter Donohoe tonight offered a relative rarity.

Surprisingly so, perhaps, as the Piano Concerto by Sir Arthur Bliss – premiered at the 1939 New York World’s Fair – has all the makings of a repertoire mainstay. At 40 minutes or so and scored for a sizeable modern orchestra, it invites comparison with Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto – even if Bliss’s melodic writing, though generous, has not the same memorable ideas. Yet the lengthy first movement mediates unerringly between rhetorical brilliance and expressive restraint, while the intertwining of themes in the Adagietto creates a palpable emotional inwardness. The finale builds its energetic rondo on a subdued rhythmic motif, which opens out as a surging melodic apotheosis just before the close.

Whether or not Donohoe has played (or had the opportunity to play!) the concerto frequently in the past, his commitment to its cause was never in doubt. In particular, he brought out the combination of muscularity and sensuousness (for which, read Prokofiev and Rachmaninov) that marks the work as a product of the inter-war period, with Bliss’s customarily expansive orchestral sound expertly marshalled by Arvo Volmer. Not a masterpiece, then, but one that deserves to make something of a comeback. To this end, Donohoe’s recording of it is due from Naxos in the new year.

Mention of Volmer is enough to draw attention to this Estonian conductor – who, despite a growing reputation in the concert hall and opera pit on the continent, and with well-received recorded cycles of the symphonies of Madetoja and Tubin to his credit, is as yet little known in the UK. Not that British music appears unknown to him, as an unmannered account of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro demonstrated to persuasive effect. Not for those who prize heart-on-sleeve emotion in this music, but the poise which Volmer invested into the central fugue and his control of momentum leading up to the return of the ’big tune’ were undeniably impressive.

Poise and momentum were equally in evidence in the account of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Notable in the first movement were an appreciably intensified exposition ’repeat’ and a brooding bassoon soliloquy before the climactic transition to the scherzo section. This was bracingly carried off, even if a degree of friction in the strings’ articulation robbed the final pages of the uninhibited energy they can exude. The central intermezzo was quizzically elegant, not so winsome as it can be and with a telling differentiation of textural light and shade. The finale made its point simply through Volmer’s refusal either to milk the hymn-like main theme of undue emotion, or to overplay the affirmation of the closing bars.

Indeed, given that Sibelius 5 has been recorded by both the CBSO’s previous and incumbent Music Directors, Volmer’s establishing of his own interpretative identity is in itself a mark of his rapport with the orchestra – and, as such, a success.

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