MUSIC / Scarpia: A jolt to the imagination: Russian revelations in Birmingham, 'Degenerate Music' recovered and youthful vigour stifled

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The Independent Culture
These days, dedicated culture vultures in Birmingham might easily jog along, safe in the knowledge that their orchestra is one of the best in the land. Then along comes an event to jolt us out of this comforting reverie; all of a sudden, perspectives change and in creeps the nagging doubt that perhaps we are not getting quite the range we thought. Gennadi Rozhdestvensky has probably administered more such jolts than most and his concert with the CBSO at Symphony Hall on 29 April must count as one of his more memorable ones.

It wasn't so much the way he made Walton's 'Comedy Overture', Scapino sound as spiky as Shostakovich that struck a chord. Nor was it the superb sense he made of Kancheli's Fifth Symphony, a strange mixture of irony and agony; nor even the dignity and profundity he managed to bring to Respighi's overblown Botticelli Pictures. The revelation came with a mould-breaking performance of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, not at all the kind of piece associated with the CBSO of late.

The orchestra doesn't often do Tchaikovsky and this lack of experience can show, as it did last year in an uneasy performance of the Pathetique. No such worries with Rozhdestvensky: he had the band digging into the cheerful banalities of this piece like Bolshoi professionals. The strings had a creamy unanimity that equalled the best on the international circuit and the brass acquired a richness and sense of swing rarely heard in more exotic repertoire. And all this, it seems, on minimal rehearsal. Perhaps the hands-off approach gives an orchestra confidence - the feeling that left to themselves they are somehow enabled, and can give more than they ever suspected. The result did not so much present Tchaikovsky's rollicking pot-boiler as an imperishable masterpiece as reveal to a loyal audience an entirely new orchestra.

A certain normality returned with the CBSO's concert, under Lawrence Foster, of 'Degenerate Music' a week later. Although it was irreproachable in intention, the event didn't quite capture the imagination. Recent research into the work of the composers who perished in Nazi concentration camps has provided recordings of a fascinating range of music. How different the European mainstream might have been had composers of the quality of Klein, Ullmann and Krasa survived. None of the music of this lost generation was featured in a concert that concentrated on the banned rather than the obliterated.

Even so, it was good to be reminded that politicians should never be allowed to make decisions about art. We can all rejoice in the fact that Weill, Korngold and Hindemith escaped the barmy and, at worst, murderous restrictions of the Third Reich. Their reward for irrational discrimination has been that their music has passed into the historical continuum. The problem for the listener is that works as familiar as the Threepenny Opera suite and Mathis der Maler have acquired so much referential baggage in their progress through the modern repertoire that it is hard to present them convincingly as works by suppressed artists.

It was harder still to fathom the rationale behind the performance of Korngold's Violin Concerto, written in the comfort of post-war America and based on a clutch of successful Hollywood film scores. Agreeable as this music is, the cause of drawing attention to the cultural villainy of the Nazis might have been better served by presenting excerpts from Korngold's earlier operatic works. But even if the planning of the concert missed the mark, the performances delivered: Weill's Threepenny Opera Suite was a touch underpowered, but Mathis der Maler was almost overwhelming.

The Midlands Arts Centre's young people's offering of works by Milhaud and De Falla makes a slightly sad coda. In previous years their productions have achieved real distinction, notably their contribution last year to a sensational performance of Bernstein's Mass. Their staging of a ballet and an opera in the ghastly Mayfair Suite, recently vacated by the City of Birmingham Touring Opera, only reinforced the impression that this space is acoustically intractable and should never be used again. Milhaud's La Creation du Monde was unduly proper and De Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro, after a magnificent opening, dull and incoherent. Paul Herbert directed his band with customary vigour and the youthful performers threw themselves about with a will, but their efforts had little impact in such an unsympathetic space. This kind of youthful energy needs focus and, above all, the right kind of environment if it is to flourish.

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