CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

The orchestra’s final concert before embarking on their coast-to-coast tour of America was a memorable, rousing send-off. In talking to us at its end, conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla said that while abroad their thoughts would often “return to Albion”. Very apt too since this splendid evening began and ended with two masterpieces of English music, both of which pay glorious recreative homage to native geniuses of an earlier age. In their album ‘The British Project’, released last year, Mirga and the orchestra demonstrated not just technical facility but an immediate and deep rapport with the music. Their performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ on disc was impressive – here it was a marvel. Using a platform-filling body of strings normally seen only in Mahler symphonies – plus the requisite off-stage group producing a magically distanced effect – the composer’s mix of religious serenity and surging passion has seldom been conveyed so potently. When the music was refined down to just the four section leaders – first and second fiddles, viola and cello – it was as if we had privileged access to an intimate conversation. A moment of wonder.

On disc I thought their performance of Elgar’s sublime ‘Sospiri’ a little cool and studied. No reservations here. Mirga’s fine adjustments, a slightly freer style with a little more vibrato and rubato, and that super-size string section, increased the emotional temperature – five minutes of unalloyed, swoon-inducing pleasure. Extrovert, funny, ingenious and a brilliant showcase for the all the CBSO’s talented players, Britten’s ‘The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ was a knockout from its mock-pompous opening to the uplifting close when Britten brings back Purcell’s theme elevated after its orchestral journey. I still find a child-like joy in the percussion section’s variation.

Mirga’s advocacy of Weinberg’s music has beenan unquestioned success of her time in Birmingham. His Flute Concerto No.1 is a witty lightweight work, occasionally waspish with a nod to neo-classicism. Lovely to see principal flute Marie-Christine Zupancic as the soloist. Sh was absolutely dazzling in the demanding and hectic non-stop Allegro molto, formidably energetic but seemingly without effort – the art which conceals art. The young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason brought a sizeable contingent of enthusiastic fans to the packed audience. His performance of Haydn’s Concerto in C was commendably vigorous and well projected. It lacks the genius of his great symphonies but Kanneh-Mason made the most of its amiability and energy. His encore, a jazzy transcription of Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Say a Little Prayer’, played pizzicato, was delightful.

Norman Stinchcombe

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