Symphony Hall ****
Frankly speaking, the first half of Thursday’s CBSO matinee was something of a disappointment. Despite the expert playing of the musicians both collectively and individually, the opening account of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was undercharacterised under the elegant conducting of Roderick Cox, and cellist Alban Gerhardt deserved something more musically rewarding than the third-rate Mendelssohn pastiche which is Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto no.1 to display his awesome gifts.
These include remarkable purity of tone, fluency of bowing (Cox’s orchestra complementing with equally supple collaboration), and deep involvement in the music, whatever its quality. Gerhardt’s encore had far more to offer, a movement from Ligeti’s Sonata for Solo Cello, a welcome departure from the habitual Bach, but so redolent of that composer’s serenity. The CBSO cello section applauded even more vociferously than their colleagues, and after the interval we soon understood why.
There on the back desk of the cellos was the unusual sight of an 11th player, Alban Gerhardt himself modestly joining his orchestral colleagues for Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Perhaps his presence contributed to the amazingly rich lower string sound in the atmospheric opening of this technically searching work.
Cox managed the movement’s tempo changes and tricky corners adroitly, briskly and crisply, balancing his forces well throughout the length of a gripping performance of this colourful, attractive showpiece for orchestra. The wind instruments coupled well in the snare drum-punctuated second movement, swift, and with confident rubato, though there were a few incoherences when they were gooseberried by third parties after a sonorous central chorale.
Violas brought outstanding depth of tone to the Elegy, and after a cheeky Intermezzo Interrotto, the zinging finale was an exhilarating celebration of the life-force the terminally ill Bartok was hanging on to with all his mighty spirit.