CBSO/Schiff, Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Monday 31 October 2005
Buried inside this concert was a nugget: Eisler's Kleine Sinfonie (or "Little Symphony"). Sharp-witted, pithy, ironic, it fuses nasty militaristic marches with masterly concision.
Every bar of this chamber symphony is memorable, from the lugubrious low trumpet and sombre strings of the opening, through compact variations embracing a sneery march theme, to ironically breezy clarinet and solo flute.
There's a brilliantly squashed scherzo, with scowling brass offset by rippling percussion, plus duetting from clarinet and trumpet, wiped out by a querying mock-cadence. A jazzy slow movement features sinuous muted trumpets whose wah-wah patterns are eerily sinister. And when the flute breaks loose again it's like a cruel lullaby before the movement evaporates.
This is a ghostly work and the woodwind, brass and strings perfectly caught Eisler's mock-gaiety and nastiness to perfection.
The cellist Heinrich Schiff was the conductor; his teacher, Hans Swarowsky, an undersung hero of mid-20th-century music, might have approved. But other parts of this concert may have left him less impressed.
At the launch of Haydn's Cello Concerto no.2 in D all boded well: short-bowed CBSO strings achieved an ideal chamber orchestra sound. But Schiff drove the orchestra clumsily, and his own playing - sliding messily across strings, frenetically decorating, grabbing at arpeggios - was pleasant only when he calmed down.
The more sedate passages are where he scored - some attractive pairing with violins, firm double-stopping and a couple of stylish, brief cadenzas. Otherwise, I'd rather have one of the CBSO cellists in this beautiful work, rounded off with its cheery 6/8 finale.
Music, and musicians, have got to breathe, and share, or they slip into autopilot. As for Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, let's just say it was mainly - er - fast.
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