Joyous Brahms Serenade from Leleux

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

When Fran├žois Leleux conducted Brahms’ ‘Variations on a Theme by Haydn’ with the CBSO in 2018 I described it as being as being ‘pleasant, if slightly under-characterized’. How times have changed. Back then Leleux was a renowned oboist branching out into conducting and while he’s the same ebullient larger-than-life character his conducting is far more assured. There was plenty of swagger, vigour and character in Brahms ‘Academic Festival Overture’, written to commemorate his receiving a philosophy degree. An honorary one, since Brahms had been a professional jobbing musician at fourteen, but he had something in common with the posh boys from the university’s fraternities though – a love of beer and drinking songs. He celebrated both in this boisterous, roistering work, with the CBSO puffing out their collective chest for Brahms’s mock-pompous rendition of ‘Gaudeamus igitur’, complete with academic counterpoint.

A brilliant piece of programming to have Brahms’s Serenade No. 1 – a gorgeous, lithe and generous-hearted work – to round off the concert. It was one of the pieces which allowed Brahms to flex his symphonic muscles while not actually being a symphony thus allowing him to delay the inevitable comparison as Beethoven’s musical heir. On its own terms the six movement work is a joyous and jaunty pastoral excursion with its irresistibly catchy opening theme an invitation to leave behind the urban hustle and enjoy the countryside, as Brahms loved to do. The CBSO’s wind section rose to the challenge as twittering birds, sylvan sounds and with the five-horns-a-hunting in one episode. The beautiful ‘Adagio non troppo’ is the work’s heart, and Leleux shaped it warmly and elegantly, eschewing the extremes of tempo that Kertesz and Boult, in their differing ways, opted for.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 by Rachmaninoff – not to be confused with the once-popular Russian composer Rachmaninov – is the gold standard of crowd pleasers, from its grimly tolling opening chords presaging mighty events to the composer’s trademark thunderously emphatic final bars. So it proved here in the capable hands of Behzod Abduraimov, the young Uzbek who played it at the Proms in 2017. On this occasion he wisely decided not to milk the opening’s drama by playing it too slowly (it’s marked Moderato) and the performance benefited. Abduraimov has a formidable technique but with plenty of subtlety and colour at his disposal as shown in the sublime Adagio sostenuto where Oliver Janes’s clarinet was a delight too.

Norman Stinchcombe

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