CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★★

Kazuki Yamada’s first concert as the CBSO’s Music Director began with a bang and ended with an even bigger one. George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ could have been bespoke for Yamada’s strengths – crackling with rhythmic extrovert energy, every nuance of tonal colour lovingly revealed, the orchestra given freedom to relish the work’s profusion of great tunes. The native New Yorker’s starry-eyed view of Paris fizzed with energy, its honking taxi horns and bustling boulevards sharply captured. Then, in the musical equivalent of a movie-screen dissolve, the mood changed as Eugene Tzikindelean's violin ushered in the romantic switch, enter Jason Lewis’s trumpet to herald the melody that will blossom as the work progresses to its surging affirmative climax – superbly played by the CBSO.

Difficult to top one might think until we heard Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Not the obligatory Ravel orchestration, although he got a compensatory nod with a performance of his delicate miniature ‘Pavane pour une infante défunte’. Here instead Mussorgsky was clothed in a suit of English cut by Sir Henry Wood whose 1915 orchestration, preceding Ravel by seven years, was a huge hit at his Promenade Concerts and will be played at the Proms by the CBSO in August. Wood’s version has the reputation of being heavy handed – the programme notes referred to throwing “the kitchen sink” – as if Wood had used an orchestral bludgeon instead of the dapper Frenchman’s rapier. Yamada and the CBSO’s performance showed both that Wood’s extra weight and heft could be effective and also delicate too, as in Eugene Tzikindelean's deliciously playful solo in ‘Les Tuileries’. Wood’s use of the organ added sepulchral gloom to ‘The Old Castle’ and he imbued ‘Baba Yaga’ with some creepily effective Bernard Herrmann Psycho-style screeching strings. Ravel wins out on telling detail: using a solo trumpet for the initial Promenade and as the whining Schmuÿle rather than instrumental sections. In the climactic ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ honours are even. Wood invokes the religious authority and dignity of Orthodox Church by using pipe organ and tolling offstage bells – no kitchen sink required. There was a moment’s silence at the end and then uproar. Wood decidedly vindicated.

In between these two stunning performances the UK premiere of English composer Anna Clyne’s piano concert, a CBSO co-Commission, might have been completely overshadowed. It’s a tribute to her achievement in ‘ATLAS’ that its energy, colour, wit and vivacity ensured that it wasn’t. The title refers to the four-volume work chronicling 5,000 photographs, drawings and sketches made by the German artist Gerhard Richter. Clyne says that the concerto’s ‘music responds to Richter’s imagery’. The four-movement work sounded a lot more fun that Richter’s austere work and had more in common with Gershwin’s orchestral hi-jinks. In his sparkling, energetic performance American pianist Jeremy Denk was aware of this – with the occasional archly humorous nod to the audience. In the opening movement ‘Fierce’ Clyne reminds us that the piano is a percussion instrument, Denk in thunderous call-and-response with the CBSO timpani, his role confined to the keyboard’s extremes. ‘Freely, intimate’ showcased Clyne’s lyrical gifts with a long arching sinuous theme. The succeeding ‘Driving’ is a fun, if diffuse, scherzo. Clyne often used the orchestra in small sections creating separate little islands of distinctive sound. She has a nice line in parody too: I’m sure I heard Rachmaninov’s penchant for quoting the ‘Dies Irae’ in his concertos being gently sent up. Denk’s ragtime encore from Scott Joplin was exquisite too.

Norman Stinchcombe

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