White-hot Brahms Symphony No.4 lights up the evening

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

With only a month of shopping days left, the majority of the nation’s married men are searching for a solution to seasonal domestic harmony – what to buy the wife for Christmas. Imagine if she had been born on December 24 with the combined conundrum of finding special birthday and Christmas presents. Not a problem if you’re one of the world’s greatest musical geniuses: no traipsing around the shops of Lucerne for Richard Wagner. Instead he composed the sublime ‘Siegfried Idyll’ for his wife Cosima, gathering sixteen musicians who squeezed themselves onto the staircase leading to the bedroom where she slept on Christmas morning 1870. What an offering – a Boots gift voucher can’t compete. Daniele Rustioni, using the familiar format with augmented strings, conducted a very broad performance almost pointillistic with vivid individual details – Siegfried’s sylvan horn and the flute’s twittering forest bird – to the fore. Unlike Wagner’s Rhine, however, this performance didn’t surge and flow, the work’s passion recollected not recreated.

But in Brahms’ Symphony No.4 Rustioni gave the reading one always hoped to hear in concert – white hot in passion, forensic in orchestral detail with all the composer’s complex and dense structure revealed and yet greater than the sum of its many parts. The opening rising and falling motif, so simple yet so rich in implication and potential, had the CBSO strings sighing like Goethe’s lovelorn young Werther. The Andante was deliciously shaped, not too lingering, illuminated by the CBSO’s wind players – horn, flute and clarinet wistful and haunting. A scherzo brimming with brio – including audible triangle – and the whole symphony crowned by its amazing finale as dense as a white dwarf star, Brahms’ thirty-two cunningly shaped miniature variations lovingly detailed, the sonorous trombone entry a shiver-down-the spine moment.

I have my better half with me,” Rustioni joked in his mid-concert spiel on the programmer’s catchpenny title ‘Eternal Romance’, referring to his wife Francesca Dego who was the excellent soloist in Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto. Mendelssohn demanded a “molto appassionato” opening movement and Dego delivered in spades adding a scintillating cadenza for good measure. Rustioni pointed straight at the bassoon for the transitional switch to the slow movement – a gesture that cleverly deterred any would be clappers – which was inward and meditative before the rumbustious major key finale with the CBSO rollicking along happily. There was a charming bonus in Clara Schumann’s ‘Three Romances’ – originally for violin and piano but here in Bernard Rofe’s orchestral transcription – where Dego put aside the virtuoso fireworks for these slight but delightful miniatures.

Norman Stinchcombe

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