CBSO/Rattle | Symphony Hall Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

A virtually full Symphony Hall. Ah, you might think, Mozart and Mahler. No? A visiting Russian orchestra with Rachmaninov and the 1812? Well, er, Beethoven and Elgar?

The concert that packed the second city's concert hall to the gills starred Hans Werner Henze (Sixties leftie and romantic individualist), György Ligeti (Magyar magician of Darmstadt's avant-garde), Tippett (guru of the knotty score and gorgeously potty idea) and Simon Holt, a mere babe in arms, one of the talented, inspired middle generation of British composers that encompasses Butler, Mason, Bainbridge, Burrell, Woolrich, Powers, Benjamin and Weir.

Is the CBSO audience discerning, rash or simply Rattle-doting? All three. Rattle's supreme Birmingham achievement was to take his audience with him. By an act of faith, it imbibed repertoire that might have cowed many an audience. If Simon did Maw, it mobbed him and clamoured for more. So, too, Webern, Szymanowski, Turnage or Thomas Ades. People believed, and allowed the quality of the music to complete the conversion.

Thursday's concert was new music but vintage Rattle. He is arguably at his best championing new music. His command of an unfamiliar score is still staggering. None of the four works was exactly a doddle for him or for the huge array of CBSO players gathered to see off the ground-breaking Towards the Millennium series, which wowed audiences in Vienna last week, as well as Birmingham and London.

Amid a fabulous programme, one work naughtily romped away with the show: Ligeti's Violin Concerto, right from the extraordinary lilting organum of its open-string opening, of which Tasmin Little gave an endearing performance. The brilliance of Little's personality and playing is that one adores her but falls for the work. The succession of nervy string ostinati with supporting marimba; the kind of Hungarian wistfulness that echoes Hary Janos or Erkel's bereft Melinda on the banks of the Tisza, with the woodwind section puffing on eerie ocarinas; or the near-actionable poaching from Szymanowski's atmospheric Song of the Night - they mesmerised everyone. You could have heard a pin drop.

Appropriately, given Henze's dubbing of the first movement of his forthcoming 10th Symphony (he calls it "A Tempest"), a kind of late Shakespearean magic hovered over the whole evening. There were Caliban moments, Ariel moments and a fair bit of Miranda, too.

Henze supplied the opening fracas. The waters welled, the winds thrashed; "A Tempest" feels like a thrilling operatic interlude, as if action has hurtled by and more impends, and the La Mer-like surges, slivers of tuned percussion (it was the CBSO percussion section's night), shifting sands and ultimate subsiding were part of some virulent Bergian Peter Grimes.

Holt has that gift for atmosphere, too. He excels in the smaller medium of chamber ensemble, and in Sunrise' Yellow Noise (the apostrophe is a genitive; the line comes from two curious Emily Dickinson stanzas), an unashamedly Seventies-sounding piece in places, beacons of lucid instrumentation shone through the thicker-textured moments. Holt emphasises the extremes by the omission of middle strings. The moods fluctuate between fleeting rapture and sustained elegy, from the voiceless, low-pitched opening in the soprano (Lisa Milne) - shades of Maxwell Davies's Blind Mary - to the plangent cor anglais that offsets Milne's blazing high tessitura near the end of verse one, the strange, sad cortÿge of woodwind that ushers in the rapt start to the second verse, and a dark, muted epilogue tinged by brass and bells.

Tippett was the arch-Prospero, from Boyhood's End and Songs for Ariel to a glorious apotheosis in Byzantium (setting Yeats) and The Rose Lake (for large orchestra). Here was magic: from the eerie tom-tom opening (the original inspiration came from Senegal) through the wonderful build-up - Midsummer Marriage meets Rhinegold Dawn - and via a divinely ugly, Caliban-like woodwind interlude to the big wall of unison strings and clutch of mini-cadenzas (percussion, oboes, bassoons) that herald the close - all charged with Tippett's stunning rhythmic verve in his late eighties - The Rose Lake sang as it danced and danced as it sang. It felt like three moving farewells wrapped up in one. Rattle was fabulously on top of it all; his CBSO players likewise.

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