CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

No opera is made great by virtue of its libretto and no piece of symphonic music by its programme. An obvious point perhaps but one worth making given the amount of ink expended on the non-musical inspiration behind Elgar’s ‘Variations on an original theme for orchestra’ Op.36, the very name of which has been captured by its subtext ‘Enigma’. Behind the facade of starched collar and moustache Elgar concealed a wicked sense of humour and I suspect he had a good laugh at the expense of would-be codebreakers puzzling out the hidden “dark saying” and  “another and larger theme”. I mention this because given the CBSO chief executive’s “new vision” a future performance of the work could inflict upon us some ghastly multi-media farrago with sepia photographs of Elgar and friends adorned with cryptic clues.

Here we had just the music – all that’s ever needed – played with immense vitality, blatant power and subtle shadings, wit and soul from the CBSO under Kazuki Yamada. His first conducting assignment, with his high school brass band, was of Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ No.1 and he seems to have taken the composer’s work to heart. Every variation had its (musical) character sharply and lovingly delineated: VII (‘Troyte’) is a fearsome examination of orchestral agility with the CBSO giving an alpha+ performance, the strings careering and swooping and Matthew Hardy playing timpani like a man possessed. The romantic XII (‘B.G.N.’) was gorgeously mellifluous in the hand of Eduardo Vassallo and his cello section. ‘Nimrod’ is a potential trap for conductors since, like Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ and Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, it has become associated with death and mourning and was played at the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. It’s noble, solemn and dignified but definitely not a dirge. While Yamada’s reading lacked the uplifting surge and drive of the composer’s own recording – at under three minutes the fastest ever – it rightly avoided the treacly self-indulgence peddled by Leonard Bernstein.

The 21-year-old rising star Maria Dueñas was the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in a performance illuminated by the immense beauty of her playing with a bright, sparkling crystalline tone. One could qualify “bright” with “relentlessly” or “unvaryingly” which might be harsh but I missed an element of earthiness and gutsiness to leaven the sweetness and light; the sort James Ehnes provided in his magisterial performance with the CBSO in 2016. I didn’t recognize the first movement cadenza and given that Dueñas is also a composer – she made the orchestral arrangement of Faure’s ‘ Après un rêve’ as an encore – perhaps it was her own, in which case she should be congratulated for doing what Beethoven would have expected a soloist to do. Whatever its provenance, however, it wasn’t a patch on the dazzling and fiendishly difficult one by Fritz Kreisler. What the performance lacked was any sense of adversity between soloist and orchestra. Yamada’s contribution was wholly subservient and sometimes, as in the glacially-paced Larghetto, almost soporific.

Norman Stinchcombe

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