CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

One rule-of-thumb to gauge the strength of an orchestra is their ability to pluck soloists from the band. In the space of a week two concerts have shown that the CBSO is in great health. Last week we saw a dazzling Walton Violin Concerto by CBSO leader Eugene Tzikindelean now up stepped Marie-Christine Zupancic and Katherine Thomas for an equally impressive performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. It was a rare combination of instruments in 1778, and still is today, but Mozart’s ability to forge a partnership between the wind section’s most ethereal instrument and what was then considered a plucked piano is amazing – as their joint cadenza testified. The Andantino is the concerto’s highlight, its shimmering heart-easing melody floating to us on a bed of soft strings was magical.

The concert opened with a vigorous, romantic and colourful outing for an old favourite, Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides’ Overture where Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev ensured that there was not a bar of the routine of musty about it. We heard the tumultuous waves, smelt the tang of sea and in that sweeping tune Mendelssohn encapsulated the 19th century’s romantic fascination with nature, with the duet of Oliver Janes’ and Joanna Patton’s clarinets capturing the unexpected calm interlude between the turbulence of Fingal’s Cave.

American composer Carlos Simon’s ‘Fate Now Conquers’ was inspired by an 1815 entry in Beethoven’s notebooks quoting Homer’s ‘Iliad’ on how great deeds can be inspired by the vicissitudes of Fate. The work, using the harmonic structure of the seventh symphony’s second movement, packed a punch and crammed a fistful of gestures into its five-minute span: frenetically agitated strings (like speeded-up Philip Glass), thunderous timpani and a dramatic pause before its flamboyant finish. It was an amuse-bouche for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony where Emelyanychev, eschewing a rostrum, stalked, darted and manically gestured while conducting what must surely be the fastest performance of the work ever heard at Symphony Hall. It was wildly exciting – those dozens of affirmative concluding C major chords didn’t feel excessive – and yet the element of mystery and existential terror that should be present in the scherzo, and trespasses briefly into the finale, was missing. What E.M. Forster vividly characterized as “the goblins” were so fast and fleeting as to be neutered into comic-book characters. Andris Nelsons in his 2014 CBSO Beethoven Cycle revealed the memento mori skull beneath the symphony’s skin.

Norman Stinchcombe

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