Fires [UK premiere]
Symphony No.6 in D (Le matin)
Symphony No.1 in D
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 16 November, 2016
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham, England
A new season, a new Music Director – Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla presided over a concert which played to the established strengths of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as well as introducing repertoire that suggested possible developments over the seasons ahead.
Understandable that Gražinytė-Tyla should use this high-profile event to feature a Lithuanian composer, and Raminta Šerkšnytė (born 1975) has been building a reputation across Europe this past decade. Premiered by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Mariss Jansons as part of a Beethoven cycle (and played between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies), Fires (2010) brings an arresting slant to expressive duality – its Misterioso then Con Brio sections juxtaposing harmonic stasis and rhythmic dynamism in the context of vivid yet un-clichéd orchestration.
The remainder of the programme was one of symphonic beginnings. ‘Le matin’ might not be Haydn’s first such piece, but is the earliest to have entered the repertoire – while its interplay of solo and ensemble writing within clear-cut melodic outlines itself pivots between the late-Baroque and early-Classical eras. Favouring transparent textures – woodwind and horns standing behind strings, harpsichord often audible – and buoyant yet never headlong tempos, Gražinytė-Tyla brought out an expressive elegance which was never lightweight or precious.
After the interval came Mahler’s First – heard just once during the CBSO’s first fifty-five seasons, but frequently scheduled thereafter (not least at the comparable concert of Sakari Oramo’s first season as Principal Conductor in 1998). Gražinytė-Tyla took her time over the first movement’s introduction – the sounds of nature only gradually becoming tangible, and then the (repeated) exposition was understated in its poise. Momentum, however, was well maintained through to a coruscating account of the coda – after which, the Scherzo had a robust humour complemented by the suavity of its central Ländler. Nor was the “huntsman’s funeral cortège” that follows to be found wanting in its mingling the sardonic and insouciant, even if having the ‘Bruder Martin’ theme played by all the double bassists at the start was a surprising decision.
Viscerally launched, the Finale was ultimately no more than the sum of its best parts – not the least among these latter being an enticing take on the eloquent second theme, and a rendering of the hushed retrospective sequence whose raptness did not preclude much pertinent detail emerging. The build-up to the final peroration was securely plotted – then, if the standing-up of the horn-players hardly aided any imbalance of brass and strings, the closing bars were powerfully projected; Mahler signing off with a gesture whose terseness rarely fails to catch the breath.
While not a revelatory reading, then, this was a notable statement of intent from an evidently gifted conductor whose ongoing partnership with her new orchestra will certainly be one to watch. She followed with an unexpected though welcome encore, Svajone (A Dream) by Juozas Najalis (1869-1934) played with just the right inward fervour by the CBSO strings.
Gražinytė-Tyla returns to Birmingham on January 29 with another Symphony by Haydn (the ‘Hornsignal’) and a comparably game-changing one (the Fifth) by Beethoven.