Symphony Hall, Birmingham ***

This opening concert of THSH's new International Concert Season brought us the huge pleasure of hearing Egyptian soprano Fatma Said in a self-chosen sequence of Richard Strauss songs, beginning with the intimacy of Freundliche Vision and ending with the ardour of Cacilie.

Said is both singer and actress, and her delivery of these offerings, each one a gem in its own right, revealed her gift for communication. Here there was delicacy, expressiveness, inwardness flowering into expansiveness at the top of phrases, and a subtle sense of nuance; and her duetting with concertmaster Duncan Riddell in Meinem Kinde was a joy.

She deserved a less heavy accompaniment from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under (for once an appropriate term) the bandmasterish baton of Xian Zhang, a conductor who certainly knows her scores but shouldn't feel the need to underline everything with such emphasis.

I wish Said hadn't given us the encore she did, apparently the world premiere of Wahab by her compatriot Nashid al Qussam, a noisy piece of Egyptian patriotism totally unsuited to follow the balm of the Strauss.

Zhang's reading of Rachmaninov's The Rock (a piece where Tchaikovsky meets Grieg and ends up evoking Delius) was cogent and well-structured, with alert strings and cavorting woodwinds. Her Shostakovich Symphony no.5 emphasised the totalitarian threat underlying it, its jackbooting moments hectic and rushed, and everything ultimately emerging as dull instead of invigorating.

Balances were uneasy, and ensemble too (horns and piano in the opening movement), but there were some wonderful passages, not least the glacial violin sound with which Shostakovich evokes the vast eternalness of the Russian steppes.

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