CBSO/McGegan, CBSO Centre, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

Nicholas McGegan knows how to aim a sideways swipe. A cheerful manual swish to enliven an offbeat moment in Handel's Concerto Grosso Op 3/1 in B flat; a tweak of an eyebrow to round off the Nocturne of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream; or a naughty jibe at "raincoated scholars" whose dry touch can strangle the life out of the high-spirited baroque.

Would they had taken his cue in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's latest Centre Stage chamber recital. This splendidly planned series enlivens lunchtimes at the thriving CBSO Centre, just beyond Symphony Hall. Featuring CBSO players, it has already delivered plums galore: Dvorak's rare Sextet, Hummel's Clarinet Quartet, Weber's Flute Trio, Quintets by Prokofiev and York Bowen. Strauss's Capriccio Prelude and Haydn's Seven Last Words are in the pipeline.

The soprano Gillian Keith's shyly delightful solo in Handel's Gloria was the high point of this variable recital. Her beautiful, slightly waif-like sound was thrilling and adroit in the fast-moving, semi-coloratura passages (the "Laudamus Te" comes like a pre-echo of Mozart's "Laudate Dominum"), magical for "Et in terra pax" and the gorgeously desolate "Domine, Deus", and plain uplifting in the concluding "Quoniam tu solus sanctus". A scintillating piece and performance.

Rockily tuned strings marred much of the Corelli, giving it the feel of an embarrassing school concert. Tricky period-instrument double-stopping was partly to blame, but when a common chord arpeggio sounds like a caterwaul, it seems poor value for the paying punters. Worst of all, McGegan's harpsichord solo apart, they sounded so glum. Clean playing in the final A minor sonata slightly redeemed it, but this re-evocation of "The Arcadian Academy in Rome" and the Papal chancellery of 1708 would have had the Holy Father staging a walkout.

So, too, might some of the young players of Birmingham Conservatoire's period ensemble, whom McGegan directed in an open rehearsal. To capitalise on a top-notch visiting conductor, best do a bit more private practice first. Yet the troupe has some superb instrumentalists, including a characterful young violin soloist (Sally Minchin) and a boy oboist who, despite awry pyrotechnics, produces a fabulous tone. By the end, gently and entertainingly coaxing, McGegan had geed them up into an exciting, well- phrased reading, full of pathos, wit and good cheer.

With the CBSO itself, McGegan was on safer territory. Period sound stemmed not so much from upper strings (they'll need more for Sir Simon Rattle tonight in Bach's St John's Passion) but from relatively unvibratoed woodwind. It shone through in Colin Parr's glorious, basset-horn like clarinet solo in Weber's Oberon overture, the crystal-clear woodwind and horns launch to the Mendelssohn, and some crisp soloing from all four players in Haydn's 1792 Sinfonia Concertante. Weber seemed like a leitmotif: McGegan evoked a positive "Wolf's Glen" from the Dream overture's mystery-laden middle.

As narrator, Simon Callow – complete with Black Country accent for the mechanicals ("His oies were gruin as luiks") – cast a spell of pure magic. Best of all was the CBS Youth Chorus, an array of disciplined girls tuned to perfection.

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