CBSO Sibelius and Brahms review

CBSO at Symphony Hall *****

Here was a violinist who eschews beauty of sound for its own sake and a conductor whose style is without a scintilla of flash or a whiff of effusiveness. That sounds like a formula for something (at best) worthy but dull. Instead we had a performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 which was a triumph for the players and conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens' undemonstrative but masterly nuts-and-bolts understanding of the score. Right from the symphony's strangely sighing and see-sawing opening bars to the finale's disturbingly curt resolution this was a tense, muscular and sinewy performance. With nothing superfluous from the podium – no gurning, leaping or histrionics – players could concentrate on the job in hand, which they did splendidly. What gusto in the Allegro giocoso, almost Elgarian in its swagger; what sumptuous cellos in the slow movement; and how magical the three trombones sounded after being cunningly held in waiting by Brahms for so long.

Christian Tetzlaff, who exchanged his Stradivarius for a contemporary German instrument, is like a chef who is sparing with the sauce and spice. In his hands Sibelius' Violin Concerto wasn't a start-to-finish display of lyricism and lush vibrato but a demonstration of less meaning more. The opening was deliberately thin, attenuated and wintry – surely the bracingly minatory sound Sibelius had in mind. There was tonal beauty when required, a tenderly restrained Adagio, and Tetzlaff was impressive in the ferociously demanding finale. Sibelius' The Swan of Tuonela made death sound seductive, as played by Rachael Pankhurst's cor anglais.

Norman Stinchcombe


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