MUSIC / New World order: Jan Smaczny on Mark Elder and the CBSO in Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
A somewhat chilly wind has been blowing through the cultural institutions of Birmingham of late. The closure - with luck, only temporary - of the Alexandra Theatre and the freezing of the Arts Council's grant for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra have done little to cheer the long winter evenings. Some sabre rattling over the latter has led to an offer of more funding from the Town Council if their sum is matched by the Arts Council, but squeezing funding on an orchestra with a proven track record can do little good for anyone.

Happily there was no sense of gloom surrounding the orchestra's latest offerings. Mark Elder's conducting of Mahler's Eighth (CBSO's first outing with the work) was both bracing and inspiring. The choirs involved may not have approached 500, let alone the 1,000 of the work's subtitle, but they sang with a will.

Logistics aside, the blueprint for a marvellous performance was there. Elder's first movement was fast and at times a touch frantic, but it had credibility and confidence. The gigantic second movement was handled, as it should be, like drama. No hint of banality shadowed the concluding moments and there was plenty of space for the inspired tropes of the soloists. All the soloists made their mark, but Susan Chilcott's Mater Gloriosa, aloft in one of the hall's acoustic chambers, will be hard to forget.

The presence of Dvorak's New World Symphony on a CBSO programme might seem a touch downmarket. But when the piece is paired with a rare performance of Ives's Second Symphony and spiced up by some authentic performance practice, perspectives change. With an eye for detail that can only bring credit to the conducting fraternity, Mark Elder has noticed that the last two chords of the first movement of the world's favourite symphony were not written down by the composer. Dvorak, as was his custom, made changes during rehearsal and, rumour has it, allowed the conductor to add the two concluding chords. Elder swept these away and plunged straight into the famous slow movement, providing a glimpse of the composer's first intentions and avoiding the 'warm bath' effect normally generated by performances of this work.

Ives's Second Symphony was also a first for CBSO. Sincere and zany, the work offers comfort and offence in equal measure. Elder and the CBSO played it straight. What might have become preposterous emerged as a rumbustious delight. As in the New World Symphony, the horns could have been better tuned and more unanimous, but in both cases this sounded like a body of players who believed in what they were doing.