MUSIC / Rhapsodies and routines: Jan Smaczny hears Mark Elder and the CBSO in an almost all-English programme at Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
HOPES and fears always come into sharp focus at New Year. Any fears that might be attendant on the arrival of Mark Elder as Principal Guest Conductor of the CBSO have yet to arrive. Hopes, in the light of Elder's experience as music director of English National Opera, run towards an expanding repertoire, a perceptibly theatrical way with concert music and, perhaps, a new orchestral sound. An all-English programme was planned for the year's first main concert, but fate intervened. The symmetries of Wednesday night's programme went by the board when Tippett's Piano Concerto had to be replaced by Beethoven's Fourth owing to the indisposition of Peter Donohoe, who had suffered a hand injury.

Perhaps the lack of rehearsal time meant that the Beethoven came over in decidedly routine fashion. Christian Blackshaw played the solo part with exemplary clarity but, in an acoustic that tends to demystify piano sound, too much of it sounded hard and unyielding. The orchestra also seemed uneasy with the work: take-ups were fluffed and there seemed to be little real unity of intent between accompaniment and soloist. The performance occupied an uncomfortable middle ground between CBSO's 'early instrument' manner in Beethoven, and a richer Romantic vision, which this concerto can easily take.

Far more rewarding was Elder and the orchestra's way with Butterworth's rhapsody A Shropshire Lad. For all the similarities of their musical language, Butterworth's determined seriousness stands in marked contrast to Vaughan Williams in comparable pieces. There is a wealth of suffering beneath the surface in A Shropshire Lad and Elder did nothing to pull its punches, exposing both the agony and the angst. Even if ensemble was not always perfect, the direction the performance took was never in doubt. Nor did Elder make the mistake of gliding over the external influences: meeting the Wagnerisms head on, he increased rather than diminishing the work's stature.

The sparse and luminous textures of Tippett's Piano Concerto were much missed after the Butterworth, not only for the sake of contrast but as a reminder of the range available in English music in this century. A certain amount of contrast might have been expected with Maxwell Davies's short piece Sir Charles - His Pavan - a tribute to the late Sir Charles Groves premiered last year - but it is so suave that it might easily have slipped in as an extra Enigma variation.

The Enigma Variations themselves were, well, something of an enigma. Some parts were marvellous. Elder's care over tenuto markings in the fourth variation ('WMB') paid terrific dividends and the seventh variation ('Troyte') and finale swept along magnificently; bold lines and vigorous rhythms work well under his baton. Some of the gentler variations also benefited from a strong sense of line.

On the down side, there was too much separation between variations, destroying a clear sense of structure and diminished the impact of the whole. Though concentrated, Enigma is not a long work; this interpretation made it seem overlong. More worrying were problems of ensemble: 'Dorabella' was fine from the strings, but the woodwind rarely delivered their fluttery fragments as a unit. This was not exactly a thrilling start to the new year, but there were green shoots and the promise of good things to come.

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