CBSO/Hough/Oramo | Symphony Hall Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

Saint-Saens would have made a thumping good film-music composer. There are moments in his Fifth Piano Concerto, programmed by Sakari Oramo in the first of his CBSO autumn concerts (as a prelude to a recording of the whole set), where Hollywood seems to break in - much as Rachmaninov's Second lends itself to Brief Encounter.

Saint-Saens would have made a thumping good film-music composer. There are moments in his Fifth Piano Concerto, programmed by Sakari Oramo in the first of his CBSO autumn concerts (as a prelude to a recording of the whole set), where Hollywood seems to break in - much as Rachmaninov's Second lends itself to Brief Encounter.

Stephen Hough's mixture of poeticism, bravado and brilliance not only made him the darling of Symphony Hall, but also drew attention to the extensive concertante-writing of a composer hailed mainly for an organ lollipop, some rattling bones and a swan.

A stylistic relic of the Gounod-Massenet era, Saint-Saëns survived the First World War, though his style largely didn't, soon yielding to Satie and Les Six. The piano concertos - the celebrated G minor (No 2), for instance - are a wonderful outpouring, positively bristling with éclat and élan, and highly gratifying to the listener.

Attentively accompanied by Oramo (though sightlines gave the odd glitch in the, by turns, trochaic and lepidopterous opening movement - why conductors let soloists, particularly singers, be awkwardly positioned defeats me) Hough turned in a stunning performance.

A sizzling, crystalline finale brought the house down. But it was other touches - the extraordinary effect in parallel fifths, cognate to an octave quint on the organ; the pert, Figaro-like posturing; the odd impudent arabesque (in a score some dub "The Egyptian"); or the bizarre ethereal chords which would make John Williams blench with envy - which linger.

Oramo's reading of Grieg's first Peer Gynt Suite alone would have sent one home content, with its subtle, subliminal woodwind - clarinet trills, grace notes on cor anglais, supporting lower flute line - in the opening aubade; counterpointed cellos and basses, a cherishing viola cadence and a fade-out in "Ase's Death" as serene as Strauss's Metamorphosen; rhythmically impeccable pizzicati from the strings; and perfect phrasing from unison bassoons in the Trolls' murky domain gave this as stylishly authentic a feel as Gergiev's Rimsky earlier this summer.

Lastly there was Mendelssohn, his Fifth Symphony, although the second to be completed, the "Reformation", designed as a fanfare for 300 years of Lutheranism and first heard, belatedly, in 1832. Most famously, it draws on both the Dresden Amen, later immortalised in Parsifal, and Luther's cornerstone hymn "Ein' feste Burg".

Some things didn't work. Oramo's overemphasised crescendos and diminuendos at the start seemed plain brash, and the hall's half-opened sound chambers amplified some string legato to the opacity of mud; there was some unappetising bowing in the andante. As a consequence, the overall shape teetered.

Yet Oramo, conducting batonless, produced some glorious results too - the swirling storm of the initial development and a superbly smooth recapitulation; exquisitely phrased prolonged cadencing in the scherzo from Colin Parr's clarinet in the scherzo; twin oboes pastorally mimicked by cellos in the trio; the mesmerising flute announcement of the final hymn; Walküre-like brass; and one hold-back by Oramo, intuitively grasped by all at the fulcral triple chord, which was a piece of sheer genius.

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