CBSO/Wolff – 14 January

Symphony No. 3 “The Camp Meeting”
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Imogen Cooper (piano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Hugh Wolff

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 January, 2003
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

2003, and the start of what looks to be the first cycle of Charles Ives’s symphonies by a British (perhaps any?) orchestra. Beginning out of sequence with the Third Symphony makes sense – as this 22-minute work, scored for modest forces (the only symphony where the timpanist doubles on tubular bells?) stands on the threshold of Ives’s maturity yet is accessible to the first-time listener.

Not that the work is at all conventional in the classical sense, as itderives from hymn-tunes treated from a number of contrapuntal and harmonic perspectives, ensuring a formal unity both across and between movements. The sonata-form solidity of ’Old Folks Gatherin’’, scherzo-like playfulness of ’Children’s Day’, and passacaglia-like formal inevitability of ’Communion’ belie the (typically for Ives) protracted genesis between 1901 and ’04, withfurther revision around 1909-10 when a New York premiere by the ailing Mahler looked a tantalising probability. That the work had to wait until 1946 for its public unveiling was a tragedy for Ives in particular and American symphonism in general.

Hugh Wolff conducted a performance firm in focus and strong on atmosphere. Never plodding and commendably spacious in the opening ’Andante maestoso’, he brought a Mozartian grace to the folksy ’Allegro’, then conveyed the pathos and nostalgia of the ’Largo’ without sentimentality. A few less string desks might have allowed a fraction more clarity, but an intriguingly diatonicdissonance – in what is effectively the original version of the symphony – came through persuasively. As the bells rang on into silence at the close, a thoughtful hush around Symphony Hall was undeniable.

Following its modest impact with a ’double whammy’ of C minor Beethoven might seem unwise, but the latter works complemented each other and the Ives surprisingly well. Few present-day pianists make so unforced a sound as Imogen Cooper – perceptive in the raptly unfolding phrases of the central’Largo’, but sounding a little enervated elsewhere. Trenchantly delivered, the opening ’Allegro’ lacked intensity at such key points as the hurtling descent into the reprise or the timpani-powered beginning of the coda (one of ’the’ moments in all Beethoven). The closing ’Rondo’ had the right quixotic vigour, though again the coda could have had a greater sense of release. Forall its insights, this was a performance less than the sum of its often-impressive parts.

Judging by the lacklustre efforts of many present-day conductors, the Fifth Symphony is a work now approached with trepidation. If not revelatory, Wolff’s account was a satisfying one. The (in)famous ’Allegro con brio’ had drive and resilience – while, if certain subtleties in phrasing and dynamics were passed over, the ’Andante’ avoided the mannerisms which so often disfigure its eloquent outline. Wolff rightly took the repeat in the Scherzo – a touch more cumulative intensity ’second time around’ would have vindicated it beyond doubt – and steered a propulsive course through the ’Finale’, lucidly paced and life-enhancing in equal measure. That a conductor can tackle this work without fear of inhibition or caution bordering on the apologetic is not to be taken for granted these days!

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