MUSIC / Setting a pace for the relay: Jan Smaczny on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

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The Independent Culture
As is customary, mid-season in Birmingham sees the baton of the CBSO handed over to a run of visiting conductors. Apart from new approaches to interpretation, all manner of non-Rattleish repertoires creep in. Under Hugh Wolff, Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique' made a rare and welcome appearance, completing a concert which also saw the UK premiere of John Corigliano's Clarinet Concerto.

Despite an uneasy start to Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini overture by the wind and horns, the performance served more than adequate notice of Wolff's qualities as a conductor: a cultivation of clear but expressive lines and terrific rhythmic bite. The clarinetist, Richard Stoltzman, had already distinguished himself on Tuesday in a concert with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. His rendition of Corigliano's concerto could easily rank as the star turn of the year. Whether throwing out stratospheric instrumental lines, duetting with a solo violin, or packing more notes per square centimetre than I have heard before in a woodwind cadenza, his virtuosity communicated without strain.

Corigliano's concerto is almost completely successful in its exploitation of the solo instrument, widely spaced complementary performers and the expressive potential of a large orchestra. At times, the sound can be almost too aggressive, but nearly always there is a persuasive sense of forward motion.

The faster sections batter the ear and occasionally almost obliterate the soloist, but balance was supplied by a genuinely lyrical slow movement. The opening gesture of this moving Elegy brought to mind the Britten of Peter Grimes - by no means a bad starting point. But once Corigliano had begun to elaborate this unique symbol of desolation, the music moved with persuasive individuality.

If there is a problem with the work, it results from the sheer potency of the orchestral gestures. Not only are they loud, but musically they are powerful enough to make the soloist seem from time to time almost an extra; the drama of a full orchestra, magnificently handled, simply has the effect of reducing the efforts of the individual performer.

The placing of horns and clarinets around the hall expanded the range of sound in the finale and did much to create a new context for the soloist. Even so, if played with anything less than Stoltzman's compelling commitment, the concerto might not have made anything like the stunning impression it did this evening.

In the second half of the concert it seemed at first as if the string players of the CBSO couldn't quite believe they were really playing Tchaikovsky: their opening contribution in the 'Pathetique' had an almost neo-classical poise, as if seen through Stravinskian glasses. On the podium Hugh Wolff was swooping and swooning, and eventually persuaded the band to give in and enjoy themselves.

The latter parts of the first movement were superb, as was the subtly-turned Allegro con grazia waltz. Their way with the march was curiously unsatisfactory - the filigree textures were too loose and the bigger tutti too galumphing. But in the finale, both the orchestra and the conductor descended every step of the way with the composer. Even if Tchaikovsky's private hell is something of a rarity with CBSO, the band's experience of Mahler has taught them all they need to know about the musical evocation of despair.