End of term? MUSIC

CBSO / Simon Rattle Birmingham
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The Independent Culture
After the Towards the Millennium festival, concert life in Birmingham can prove a slightly bewildering experience as the rigorously thematic gives way to pick and mix. There was a distinctly end-of-termish feel to CBSO's decision to follow Schubert at his most racily boyish (the Third Symphony) with Wagner at his most grandly mature (the "Good Friday" music from Parsifal) - and it almost worked.

Concert planning apart, the main fascination of the evening was a rare appearance by the Austrian soprano Gundula Janowitz. In the 1960s the conventional view was that the astonishing flexibility of her voice gave a new meaning to the legato line; the quality too was remarkable, blending a hard edge with great warmth of resonance. If there was a criticism, it was the familiar one of unclear diction. Thirty years on, there is still much to wonder at. Apart from anything, it's good to see a singer who knows how to command a stage by doing nothing other than singing. Her diction is now crystal clear and the command of affect, in a set of Strauss orchestral songs, genuinely profound.

The steely quality is still there - the start of "Ruhe, meine Seele!" was almost brutally hard edged. But if in these opening manoeuvres the front of the voice seemed the dominant feature, when the dynamic rose above mezzo forte that extraordinary legato returned and the fondly remembered depth of tone kicked in. As the sequence of songs progressed, Janowitz and the orchestra explored unexpected regions of expression. There were more than a few quavers, but these brief reminders of age barely stood in the way of a performance of rare and unaffected beauty.

Simon Rattle and the orchestra eventually captured the essence of the Strauss songs, but elsewhere seemed in curious mood. Going in search of something beyond the conventionally classical in Mozart's curiously expressionist Symphony No 33 - full of pre-echoes of Beethoven - it came up with few answers. The strings seemed lacking in unanimity and the woodwind stolidly refused to pounce on melodic lines.

For Schubert's Third Symphony Rattle and the orchestraseemed determined to take it at face value, though were careful enough to conceal the relentless tread of two-bar phrases. Their observance of the repeat in the first movement was startling proof of the value of this convention - the first play-through was a bit of a hash, the second time round it was a model of care and expression. Notwithstanding an embarrassing moment in the finale, they furnished enough Italianate high spirits in this Rossinian peroration for any taste. After this, the building up of the orchestra to Wagnerian proportions seemed slightly odd in the course of only 10 minutes or so of music, however ravishing. Though eloquently played and imbued with a fine sense of line, there was an inevitable feeling of anticlimax - but then it was Maundy Thursday.

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