Birds of Paradise: CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

This ornithologically-themed concert was the idea of Finnish violinist and conductor Pekka Kuusisto but due to illness he was unavailable. He had programmed music by his countrymen Sibelius and Rautavaara but more intriguing was his choice of Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’; it would have been fascinating to hear his take on this quintessentially English work. Withdrawals, however, create chances for others and so violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and one of the CBSO’s assistant conductors Bertie Baigent, making a very calm and assured debut, shared Kuusisto’s dual roles. One casualty of Kuusisto’s absence was Isobel Waller-Bridge’s ‘Temperatures’, which he premiered last year in London. It was replaced by the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony – a pleasant gently ambling performance – with the late appearance of a nightingale (flute), quail (oboe), and cuckoo (two clarinets) justifying its inclusion.

Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi’s ‘Birds of Paradise’, inspired by an episode of David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ documentary series, was a shimmering susurration with the CBSO’s strings showing great agility in the composer’s demanding use of glissandi. Tarrodi cleverly moved the sound through the sections giving the impression of a singing flock flittering around the platform. A short work showing that contemporary music can be ingenious and fun. Nigel Kennedy’s swooningly romantic one-of-a-kind take on ‘The Lark Ascending’ – recorded live with the CBSO under Simon Rattle in 1997 – casts a long shadow over subsequent performances in the hall. Waley-Cohen’s very different approach, crisp, cool and ethereal worked well especially in the final carefully graduated solo fade out as the lark disappears into the heavens.

Kuusisto had compiled a Sibelius ‘Bird Suite’ – two pieces from ‘Swanwhite’, the ‘Scenes with Cranes’ topped off with a suitably black-swathed, louring reading of the ‘Swan of Tuonela’. Rachael Pankhurst (cor anglais) was a mellifluous swan, Eduardo Vassallo’s cello an elegant, poignant partner, and the entry of the sepulchral trombones was a shiver-down-the-spine moment. Rautavaara’s 1972 ‘Cantus Arcticus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’ was a dazzling mixture of orchestral mimicry – raucous honking cranes from the brass – and birdsong taped by the composer on a trip to the Arctic Circle in the extreme north of Finland. The giant speakers suspended from Symphony Hall’s ceiling were perfect for this work with birds swooping, cawing, cackling and plangently appealing forty feet above our heads all underpinned by Rautavaara’s string-dominated melodies with a final full orchestra peroration. The birds though, rightly, had the final word.

Norman Stinchcombe

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