Edward Gardner and the CBSO by Christopher Morley
Put together the CBSO with its proud history in performing Sibelius, and a charismatic yet totally serious conductor -- Edward Gardner -- whose past few years have been rooted in Scandinavia, and you get a performance of the Finnish composer's Second Symphony which will live long in the memory.
Gardner never over-conducts; instead he lets the momentum of the music carry itself forward, building incident upon incident so that structural climaxes rise naturally from the context. So the cool self-assembly of the first movement homed in on the triumphant point of recapitulation, the tortured explorations of the andante (quite a slow one, here, bravely handled by pizzicato basses) had us breathlessly alert throughout, and the scherzo fizzed with remarkable electricity before leading into a finale whose blazing peroration was patiently built.
There were so many instrumental contributions to praise, but particular plaudits must go to the bassoons, playing with much more personality than most scores allow them, and to the violas, playing out of their socks and delivering a gorgeous effulgency of tone.
Before this, Baiba Skride was the literally enchanting soloist in Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, weaving its lines like a mother telling a vividly gothic bedtime story, its expressions sometimes scary, but at other times reassuring with a grin.
Skride is a popular visitor to the CBSO, and here they and Gardner shared with her a collaboration which illuminated every aspect of this many-sided score. No encore could have followed this, and thankfully there was none.
Richard Strauss' visionary Death and Transfiguration opened the evening, Gardner's balancing of registers, textures and sonorities making us think of the composer's Alpensinfonie of several years later -- and of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, which may well have been influenced by this youthful deathbed excursion.