Oramo and the CBSO play Kurtág- 2nd May

Stele, Op.33
Four Capriccios, Op.9
Piano Concerto No.3
The Firebird – Suite (1945)

Zoltán Kocsis (piano)
Anu Komsi (soprano)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 May, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

In succeeding Simon Rattle as Music Director of the CBSO, Sakari Oramo had a tough act to follow. He has done so admirably. Bringing in his own ideas, repertoire and style, Oramo has established something definite in his tenure. Where repertoire is similar – Sibelius for example – Oramo has brought distinctive interpretations to bear (as his Erato recordings testify). Not intended as parochial, I particularly welcome his inclusion of British music – not only the ’big guns’ (Britten, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton), but less-travelled figures like Bax, Bridge and Foulds. Such an interest was perhaps unexpected, but Oramo’s inclusion of the highways and byways of this island’s music is appreciated; I heard last December an individual and memorable account of Vaughan Williams’s Job in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

London (Proms aside) has not been on the CBSO’s itinerary for a while now, so this appearance and the one the week before for the South Bank’s Kurtág celebrations will hopefully establish a regular pattern of the CBSO gracing the capital.

Richard Whitehouse has written fully on this concert. Suffice for me to mention the thoroughly well prepared and concentrated account of Kurtág’s Stele, its vast orchestral resources pared to a Webern-like economy to emphasise variegation and harmonic expedience; the final section was hypnotically slow and intense. The Capriccios were a real discovery. Kurtág enters a Ligetian soundworld and pays homage to Bartók; this Hungarian ’line’ affords Kurtág a base to spin an individual and engrossing chamber-group commentary (including the indigenous cimbalom) for the soprano’s sexually-orientated verse of István Bálint. This vivid performance revealed the potency of Kurtág’s settings.

Bartók himself was heard in the valedictory piano concerto (the closing bars courtesy of friend Tibor Serly). There’s no doubting Zoltán Kocsis’s formidable technique or his acute understanding of Bartók’s expression. Yet this totally unsentimental performance rarely tugged at the heartstrings; and surely there are passages that should. The chorale with which the piano enters in the slow movement needed a crucial extra degree of poise, and there were other paragraphs that were ridden over in a structural agenda that belied the music’s heart. Not the full story.

Oramo offered a crisp accompaniment, not always at one with Kocsis’s masterplan, and completed the concert with an excellent 1945 Firebird Suite (the last of the composer’s versions for playing this music: complete 1910 and suites 1911 and 1919). Helped by Stravinsky’s most transparent orchestral option, Oramo drew a well-balanced, brightly detailed response from his Orchestra, one expressive and deftly articulated with some fine solo work, not least Colin Parr (clarinet) and Elspeth Taylor (horn).

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