Sparkling Vivaldi ‘Four Seasons’ from the CBSO

CBSO at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★

Conductors and composers have often transcribed chamber and solo works for full orchestra – from the respectfully faithful to Stokowski’s fancifully garish recreations. A handful are revelatory; one such is Dmitri Mitropoulos' of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor Op. 131. When he conducted it in 1937 with the Boston Symphony a young music student in the audience was so awe-struck that he vowed one day to conduct and record it himself. Listen to Leonard Bernstein’s 1977 white-hot recording with the Vienna Philharmonic and be similarly awed – this is as near as we’ll get to hearing “Beethoven’s Tenth”. There’s nothing of that magnitude in Mahler’s transcription of Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’ despite it deriving from a chamber music masterpiece based on one of the great songs in lieder literature. The CBSO strings, directed from the first violin by the leader Eugene Tzikindelean, gave an intensely beautiful, elegantly tasteful and immaculately played performance – but not one that stirred the soul. The Schubert (like Beethoven’s Op.131) is a work of emotional extremes and demands a musical analogue of those extremes. Bernstein used the complete Vienna string battalions, including18 first violins and 12 cellos, the CBSO used just 29 players in total. Sometimes big is better – I would have loved to hear the full CBSO string complement perform this work at Symphony Hall. There were some cherishable moments here, in the quicksilver changes of mood in the theme-and-variations and attention-grabbing bass contributions but I missed the shiver-down-the-spine moments of terror and almost hysterical ferocity that the best chamber performances (e.g. the Takács Quartet) achieve. The chamber-sized CBSO, with the addition of Masumi Yamamoto on harpsichord, were perfect for Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’; graceful, energetic and expertly conjuring up the works sounds and colours – an invigorating and sharply-accented spring and languorously heat-hazed summer. Tzikindelean provided some witty and fanciful, but always tasteful, touches. Vivaldi’s Seasons were alternated with Astor Piazzolla’s easy-on-the-ear ‘The Four Seasons of Buenos Aries’ although Leonid Desyatnikov’s all-string transcription lacks the original’s tangy urban Argentinian accent.

Norman Stinchcombe

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