CBSO/Kocsis, Symphony Hall, Birmingham <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Slavonic music conducted by a Magyar with an English orchestra usually directed by a Finn might seem like a rum cocktail. But the CBSO's latest focus on Eastern European repertoire under the Hungarian conductor Zoltan Kocsis, probing lesser-known works by familiar composers, proved a real eye-opener.

Briefly, Kocsis set Slavs aside to unveil the Two Pictures of his compatriot Bartok. These are a treasure- house of musical ideas, in which the fruits of his study of Debussy and folk music merge in a fascinating anticipation of, in particular, Duke Bluebeard's Castle. The village dance, unleashed by double basses and unison strings, might seem joyous and abandoned, but there's a sombre undertow.

Both here and in Tchai-kovsky's Marche Slave, with flaring brass and shrill piccolos, Kocsis opted for slight overkill, and the opened echo chambers above tended to amplify the sound still further. A subtler approach might have said more.

Kocsis has bravely elected to orchestrate a clutch of Rachmaninov's songs: a welcome move, given the dismal rarity of hearing a genre at which he excelled, setting Russian poets from Pushkin onwards. Again, the orchestra tended to overbear the singer, the appealing Hungarian tenor Attila Fekete; and textures sometimes sounded muddy. But some glorious orchestral detail emerged: a sadly musing saxophone in "Dreams"; fervid strings for "Midsummer Nights"; shimmering woodwind and celesta for "Daisies"; a string-quartet lullaby in "To the Children". In the scherzo "Krisolov", Fekete's Russian seemed more dark-vowelled and idiomatic.

Early Dvorak is still badly neglected. His Third Symphony in E flat, like the D minor that followed, boldly proclaims his infatuation with Wagner. Its subordinate themes could perhaps be more slyly developed, but it is a glorious outpouring of uninhibited melody, and here the balances really did come right. Lohengrin, Tristan, even Die Meistersinger (in the Finale) seem to make their entry, and one of the most tantalising moments was when a wisp of Das Rheingold's Magic Fire Music welled up on pianissimo strings just before the close of the funeral march.

The gloom had by then turned to smiles, however, for Dvorak leads his slow movement into new major paths by brilliant, unexpected twists. The CBSO's solo flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon worked wonders, and an astonishing explosion of cello pizzicato spoke reams for the Czech composer's inventive genius.