Brabbins studied conducting in St Petersburg and in this, his first festival, Russian music is to the fore. Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and the Smirnovs all figure.
This first concert took in Tchaikovsky's massive Manfred Symphony, and, continuing the Cheltenham tradition, new work by a British composer, Julian Anderson. Anderson's Eden uses both standard equal temperament and non-tempered harmonics. The problem is that as an opening work, tonal queasiness nags away as simply being an orchestra not warmed up. It's a homage to the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and takes its cue from The Kiss.A pair of solo instruments - viola and cello - begin and end the work, first vibrato-less and bleached, finally warm and fully vibrating.
At almost an hour, Manfred is a monster. First Tchaikovsky loved it, then he loathed it. With the town hall's bland acoustics, there was little Brabbins could do to enliven the sound. And it came over as desperately in need of pruning.
Bartok's Second Violin Concerto seemed an odd choice for Viktoria Mulova, who could surely have played a more popular Russian work. This Bartok is full of contrasts - folk, dance, military - yet she remains so distant, albeit fabulously competent technically.
The opposite of Manfred might be Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, which packs a tremendous punch. The Academy of St Martin in the Fields has been touring this piece, and this, their penultimate appearance, made an exhilarating late-night concert. Much is made of the Princess (Helen Anker) and the Devil (Iain Woodhouse) who join in throughout, the piece more mimed and danced than usual. An excellent festival beginning.
Festival continues to 17 July (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.org.uk)
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