Four Etudes
Violin Concerto
The Nightingale

Daniel Hope (violin)

Nightingale – Anu Komsi
Emperor – Roderick Williams
Fisherman – Andrew Rees
Cook – Donna Bateman
Death – Frances McCafferty
Chamberlain – Neal Davies
Bonze – Timothy Mirfin (bass)
City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 June, 2006
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

“IgorFest” – a four-year project, now into its second season, that involves most of Birmingham’s arts organisations in the performance of all Stravinsky’s works – continued here with three works not necessarily central to the composer’s output but equally not peripheral in terms of their quality.

Only brevity and also emergence amid probably the richest phase of Stravinsky’s stage-works has denied the Four Etudes the prominence it deserves. Although premiered in 1930, the set consists of orchestrations of three string quartet pieces from 1914 along with that of an étude for pianola from three years on – but, as so often with Stravinsky, what might appear an arbitrary assemblage takes on a conviction to amply belie its genesis. Certainly when given with the insight evinced by Sakari Oramo – drawing pungent playing from the incisive rhythmic repetitions of ‘Danse’, a deft sense of caricature from the mannered gestures of ‘Excentrique’, and a brooding mystery from the liturgical overtones of ‘Cantique’. Maybe the overt Spanish-isms of ‘Madrid’ are a little obvious in context, but the sheer drive of the performance made it a more than effective ending to this minor masterpiece.

If these pieces give a misleading impression of Stravinsky at the time of their appearance, the Violin Concerto (1931) exemplifies the neo-classicism of his middle years – even if Baroque allegiances are most to the fore here. Each movement prefaced and, to a greater extent, informed by the specific chord that violinist Samuel Dushkin initially thought unplayable, the concerto pursues a determined trajectory from the athletic energy of the ‘Toccata’, through the wistful restraint of the ‘Aria I’ and plangent expression of the ‘Aria II’, before the scintillating brilliance of the final ‘Capriccio’.

Daniel Hope had the measure of the first three movements, with the precision of his passagework no less impressive than his eloquence of line, though the finale seemed rather less well prepared – the returns of the rondo theme giving rise to several ‘false endings’ that might almost have caught the soloist unawares. Yet with the CBSO fully attuned to the bracing, astringent instrumentation, the performance rarely failed to engage, and Hope then reaffirmed his prowess in a beautifully-judged rendition of Ravel’s unaccompanied Kaddish – given in tribute to the recently-departed György Ligeti.

The second half offered a comparatively rare opportunity to hear the opera “The Nightingale”, which occupied Stravinsky either side of the three ballets that established his fame. Often criticised for the stylistic disparity between its first act of 1908-09 and the latter two of 1913-14, the work is a good deal more unified than its protracted gestation suggests, and it was to Oramo’s credit that it cohered thus.

Taking his time in the first act enabled him fully to project the brooding intensity of the introduction – its Mussorgsky and Debussy allusions elegantly deployed – heightened expressively by the song of the Fisherman and that of the Nightingale, before the not so delicate humour effected by the arrival of the Chinese imperial retinue. The effervescence of the Chinese court music at the start of Act Two was tellingly balanced by the pathos of the Nightingale’s song, then the quirkiness of a mechanical double sent by the Japanese Emperor; while the ‘deadpan’ encounter between Death and the Chinese Emperor during Act Three, culminating in a mock-solemn procession and the latter’s miraculous recovery, was as vividly realised as the rapt quality of the Fisherman’s refrain at the close.

It helped that the cast was a persuasive one: above all, Anu Komsi – her purity of tone and effortless coloratura making a Nightingale to savour. Almost as impressive was Andrew Rees’s Fisherman, whose lyrical strains set narrative events in expressive relief. Roderick Williams was an authoritative yet vulnerable Emperor, while Donna Bateman brought character to the role of the Cook, and Frances McCafferty evinced an unusually equable Death. Neal Davies and Timothy Mirfin were a complementary double-act as Chamberlain and Bonze, and the CBSO Chorus was unfailingly responsive in their guisesas Courtiers and Spectres. Oramo secured an orchestral response that projected the score in all of its scintillating brilliance and also ruminative inwardness. Whether or not a masterpiece, this was the highlight of the CBSO’s contribution to “IgorFest” so far and deserves to be preserved as a recording.

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