MUSIC / Halls of resonance: Sound Inheritance - Birmingham Town Hall

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS a surprise to hear voices raised in support of Birmingham's Town Hall over the acoustic glories of the Symphony Hall: 'So nice to really hear the bass' and 'amazing how the brass leaps out at you'. The former could have resulted from a phalanx of six-string basses in a semicircle at the back and the latter always seems to be the case with old-instruments bands, but there was no denying the period glow surrounding the first concert of Sound Inheritance.

Each of the three tours in this scheme, supported by the Arts Council, begins in Birmingham Town Hall. It is a remarkable gift, and one which lays heavy responsibilities on all involved. Audiences can at last demonstrate the reality of a mass public in the country for classical and romantic music on early instruments. Unfortunately there was precious little sign of crowds flowing back to the hall where Mendelssohn had such signal success in the 19th century. The other part of the bargain lies with the performers. While some pundits still seem bent on using the term 'authentic', Roger Norrington's performance of Brahms's second symphony is largely untrammelled by reference to the 'A' word. He fearlessly whips up the excitement with unmarked accelerandi and uses expressive punctuation with the verve of an early 20th-century maestro. The problem was that the London Classical Players did not seem quite up to following this healthy vision. Wind intonation was more variable than it ought to be and shaky ensemble in the strings was almost routine. Everyone seemed happy to follow Brahms's phrasing at the beginning of the symphony, but why abandon it later?

Notwithstanding the Town Hall Nationalists, I was very glad to get back to Symphony Hall for Boulez's Notations I-IV and Mahler's third symphony, not least for the cosiness generated by a capacity audience. It would be hard to imagine Boulez's more monolithic tuttis sounding anything other than congested in the Town Hall. In Symphony Hall all manner of detail became apparent in these Messiaen-inflected pieces; with Rattle and the CBSO in fine form, these four orchestral miniatures had a suite-like integrity.

The benefits of an acoustic which allows so much to be heard were still more valuable in Mahler III. String trills, marked as quietly as possible, sounded for all the world like pan-pipes accompanying wood-wind chords. Pan himself seemed to lurch a little on entry, but by the conclusion of this gargantuan first movement he was swaggering like Bacchus. The following minuet was wonderfully blithe; a near-perfect performance. Unfortunately, the Comodo scherzando third movement was much less captivating, with the distant Flugelhorn sounding the devil to tune and co- ordinate. Despite a slightly fractured accompaniment from the trombones in the fourth movement, Jard van Nes was an expressive and committed soloist, though I could have done with darker tone. This brief list of grievances melted at the remarkable finale. This was as alert and profoundly involved a performance as any I have heard, and as the crown of a tribute to that fine Mahlerian, Alfred Hodgson, deeply moving.

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