CBSO, Halsey Town Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

Begun in 1832 to a design by Joseph Hansom, and now restored at a cost of £35m, Birmingham Town Hall has played an important part in the city's musical life.

The neoclassical building was one of the glories of 19th-century Middle England. Mendelssohn played his Second Piano Concerto there, Grieg entertained, Dvorak conducted. Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius famously flopped at the 1900 Triennial Festival, an event dating back to Mozart's time. And at the last gathering before the Birmingham Festival was dropped in 1912, Elgar conducted the premiere of his astonishing "ode", The Music Makers.

For their triumphant return, as a test for the "enhanced" acoustic, the CBSO set Elgar's deeply emotional work alongside the rarely heard G minor Violin Concerto of an Elgar protégé, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The new interior is stunningly decked out in grey and white, to offset the turquoise and gold of the organ. The concert was also an occasion for giving the CBSO's chorus director, Simon Halsey, his head. Conductor and chorus both emerged triumphant.

The Music Makers is the work in which Elgar addresses the artist's lonely role, and which – around a sinuous rising and falling motif heaving with nostalgia – he fills, Shostakovich-like, with allusions to his own work: both the first two symphonies, the Violin Concerto, Gerontius, and, above all, with an astonishing quotation of "Nimrod" at the words "on one man's soul has it broken", the Enigma Variations.

This was a sensational performance, not least because Halsey contrived, as if instinctively, to get all the pacings right. The chorus's words were clear, but most galvanising was the mezzo Jane Irwin's thrilling delivery of "They Had No Vision", upon which the tenors joined in, adding words to "Nimrod". The orchestra's playing was top-notch, including key moments for solo clarinet, the crucial tympanist and arresting violas and cellos.

Despite a strong melodic urge and hints of both Dvorak and Sibelius, the Coleridge-Taylor just failed to take flight, although Anthony Marwood gave an admirable performance, abetted by the CBSO's assistant conductor Michael Seal.

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