A conductor's life on the ocean wave

Classical; SEA MUSIC: CBSO/LSO SYMPHONY HALL BIRMINGHAM

A CONCERT of sea-music, without La Mer? Very possible, says the conductor Sakari Orano, whose forays into the English repertoire are winning him new friends in Birmingham - where the Finn stepped into Simon Rattle's shoes earlier this autumn.

Last month Orano was making waves with Bax's Tintagel; Elgar and Frank Bridge have just followed. It's surely just a matter of time before Bantock (another Birmingham leading light), Holbrooke and Rutland Boughton (Bax's most avid fellow-Arthurian) follow.

True, there was some paddling in Orano's watery soiree. The strings seemed oddly at sea at the launch of Mendelssohn's Hebrides overture; waves that should lap eddied, and at times the balance muddied. Yet the CBSO woodwind showed off the orchestra consistently at its best; clarinets and paired flutes, surfing above soupy strings, or scudding like fireflies amid the textures, brought a metronome precision. The woodwind chorus in "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage" was a marvel, just as the CBSO brass dazzled in the descending flurries of Britten's Four Sea Interludes, nicely approached by Orano, whose gambled slow pacing of No 3 ("Moonlight") overtly paid off.

The CBSO strings struck out with more elan in the forcible tutti, and in some exposed passages; fine breast-stroke from the double basses and forward-placed cellos, and an exquisite upsurging passage for violas in the opening to Bridge's The Sea, a massive, four-movement tone poem, akin as much to Scriabin as to Debussy; a gripping, tautly argued masterpiece from that fertile era just before the First World War. A superb CBSO team effort, well worth EMI recording. The mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg brought a heroic textual memory to Elgar's Sea Pictures, and a charming, if slightly didactic, delivery - albeit shorn of the subtle rubati that can make even limp Victoriana bloom. Aquaceous Elgar cries out for more bosom.

Earlier in the week, amazingly, Symphony Hall had its first taste of Sir Colin Davis. Elgar again was the fare, and the effect was electric. With the opening bars the LSO's meticulously short-bowed string precision gave Dresden, Berlin and Chicago all a run for their money. The scherzo from Mendelssohn's Octet emerged exactly as marked - leggierissimo - and even though 60 strings were beavering away, it still sounded like chamber music.

The LSO's Leningrad-born leader, Alexander Barantschik, and superbly empathic principal cello, Tim Hugh, were the soloists in Brahms's late- flowering Double Concerto. Chalk and cheese, the one sweet and succulent, the other earnest and responsive, an apt dialogue, if you go with the story that the two instruments ape the recently reconciled Brahms and Joachim.

And Elgar's First Symphony had the audience on the edge of its seats. Davis's way of playing the long waiting-game - his handling of organic growth, his slow ratcheting up of dynamic beat - ranks in a class of its own. The wisdom of old age, you might say - except that three decades ago the young Davis could do just that. He thrilled then, and he still does now.

Roderic Dunnett

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