CBSO premiering Thomas Ades Exterminating Angel Symphony

EXCITING ADES PREMIERE, DISAPPOINTING BRAHMS


CBSO
Symphony Hall ***
Symphony Hall was almost back to its old normal on Wednesday evening, buzzing with excitement ahead of a CBSO concert with a proper interval, people enjoying drinks from the at last re-opened bar (though the crowded tables in the seating area – no social distancing here- reminded me of the catering hall at Birmingham Airport), and CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock welcoming us back and inviting us to peruse the season to come.
And I was at last back in the reviewing seats I have been proud to inhabit since 1992, which made me a very happy bunny.
Unfortunately not everything in the concert itself intensified that feeling. The first half of the programme was given over to long-delayed offerings, debris of the orchestra's shattered 2020 celebratory centenary season, but doubly jinxed with Covid postponements. At last we got to hear the long-awaited revival of the Second Symphony of Ruth Gipps, a stalwart of the then City of Birmingham Orchestra in many capacities in the years following World War II.
This was delivered with loving care and respect by the CBSO under Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, but after its gorgeous melting opening it soon fell into the lingua franca of so much fine British film music of the period, well-crafted, but laden with undeveloped ideas which made it more of a rhapsody with four interconnected movements rather than a cogently argued symphony.
Which is what we exhilaratingly received with at last the world premiere of the CBSO's commission from its once Composer-in-Association, Thomas Ades, The Exterminating Angel Symphony., derived from the composer's opera of the same name inspired by the Luis Bunuel surrealist film.
The piece begins with arresting orchestral shudders, and moves into a well-marshalled display of the composer's aural memory, every bar well imagined. Gipps had a fine aural memory, too, but Ades makes something much more persuasive from his earworms, so the second movement March (Gipps gave us one, too, busy side-drum typical of the genre) has a genuine menace, sweeping with energy, and after a warm-hearted Berceuse, the "Waltzes" finale brings us a surging dance of death, Mahler evoked, and Rachmaninov, too.
After these novelties came one of the CBSO's long-cherished calling-cards, Brahms' Third Symphony. Elgar adored this work, but he would not have enjoyed this pallid account under Mirga. Many of her flamboyant conducting gestures seemed irrelevant, to no perceptible effect (one longed for the austere beat of Hans Richter, one of the work's earliest interpreters). The players responded dutifully, strings industrious, woodwind choiring eloquently in the slow movement, brass nobly chording as the conclusion neared.
This programme was to be repeated next evening at the BBC Proms. Some socks would need to be pulled up if the CBSO's triumphs on previous appearances were to be replicated.
Christopher Morley

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