CBSO / Oramo: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

There were good reasons to be hopeful at the prospect of a symphony by Julian Anderson. Firstly, the CBSO's composer-in-association has the intellectual equipment to create a sustained, intricate and compelling musical argument. Secondly, he has the ability to write music that has direct sensuous and emotional appeal. The workings of an Anderson symphony might be subtle, but it was unlikely they would be arcane or forbiddingly abstract.

Anderson's programme note for this second performance of his Symphony by the CBSO was still more encouraging. He had clearly found a fertile poetic image for his new symphony in a painting by Sibelius's friend Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Morning by a Lake, an atmospheric depiction of the moment when the northern sun catches the surface of a lake and the ice begins to melt. Anderson's first sounds could have been written simply to illustrate the painting in music: quietly shimmering strings shading into rustling harp and percussion; dense woodwind clusters, "frozen" at first but gradually melting into longer, freer melodic shapes. The process continued and intensified, building to a climax from which a much livelier music emerged seamlessly.

So far, so good - at least when it came to musical scene-painting. My only doubt at this stage was whether any of the the melodic/motivic ideas were strong and distinctive enough to sustain a 20-minute span of unbroken musical argument. But as Anderson's Symphony progressed - or, rather, didn't progress - doubts intensified.

There was more beautiful writing to come, particularly in the long, intensely expressive melodic lines of the slow movement. But here, I couldn't help wishing that Anderson had been more restrained when it came to atmospheric detail. There were times when the warbling woodwind and washes of marimba and vibraphone made it hard to pick out the leading lines. The scherzo sections also suffered at times from too much detail: an impressive profusion of wild sounds, but where was the continuity, the symphonic thread?

The pairing of Anderson's Symphony with Beethoven's Ninth did the new work no favours. This was no great performance, but what conductor Sakari Oramo brought out best in the Beethoven was the very quality he'd failed to find in the Anderson: that crucial sense of sustained development, of purposeful linear thinking.

The CBSO responded well to Oramo's direction, the Chorus were on fine form, and there was a robust, polished team of soloists. The tenor Timothy Robinson was perhaps too light a voice to be effective in the rabble-rousing "Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen" solo; and the soprano Valdine Anderson strained at the notorious climactic high B. Otherwise, a secure, if not quite scintillating Beethoven Nine.

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