Cello Concerto in E-minor, Op.85
The Exterminating Angel Symphony [New York premiere: co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall]
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 22 October, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
On the final stop of its eight-city USA tour, the CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla offered a program that opened with an enthusiastic and expressive rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s playing sparkled in the second movement and tenderly reflective in the elegiac Adagio, but at times his light-footed sound was nearly subsumed by the heftier accents of the orchestra. However, while he was less than ideally powerful in the bolder passages and his unflashy stage presence was frequently upstaged by the conductor’s poise and panache, he compensated with his indisputable ardor and warmth. As an encore, four CBSO cellists joined him in an eloquent account of his own gorgeous transcription of J. S. Bach’s ‘Komm, süsser Tod’.
Next came Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony drawn from the his macabre, powerfully-scored 2016 opera, which is based on Luis Buñuel’s surrealist 1962 film, in which some high-society friends are invited to a mansion for a post-opera dinner and, for inexplicable reasons, find themselves trapped and unable to leave. In ‘Entrances’ the guests arrive for dinner, twice. Next comes the forceful and frenetic ‘March’, epitomizing the spell of the Angel. This is followed by a tender but discomforting ‘Berceuse’, which draws on the yearning, melancholic duets of the opera’s ill-fated lovers. In ‘Waltzes’, fragments scattered throughout the opera are brought together to create something sounding terribly dangerous and disquieting.
Even without the plotline of the opera as a reference point, the Symphony’s imaginative and wide-ranging score – with its complex blend of satire, longing, compassion, and doom – is sufficiently cohesive to stand on its own. Gražinytė-Tyla, attentive to every mood, elicited a magnificent performance.The concert ended with a commanding performance of La mer, which laid bare Debussy’s rich and subtle orchestration. Gražinytė-Tyla splendidly maintained the tension as the music built up to sensational climaxes in ’From Dawn to Noon at Sea’. The agile and animated woodwinds sounded especially playful and light in the second movement, ‘Play of the Waves’, and the Finale, ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’, generated tremendous excitement.