City of Birmingham SO / Oramo, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh
Monday 24 June 2002
The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and various of its offshoots, including Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and a chamber ensemble, are enjoying a fruitful residency at this year's Aldeburgh Festival. So, too, is its Finnish Music Director Sakari Oramo, who seems keen to demonstrate his affinity with English music, conducting on the day that England beat Denmark music from both nations.
Three short choral works opened a programme in which death and mourning hung heavily in the air. From 1959, when Edith Sitwell obliged Britten with a poem to mark Purcell and Handel anniversaries, her words lay unuseduntil 1976. Finally, 120 bars into the composition of Praise We Great Men, the composer died, leaving his assistant Colin Matthews to complete the work. Gamelan-like colourings and harmonic and textural inventiveness give the piece an unearthly quality. In the dying falls of some vocal lines and the orchestral postlude, "the planetary system of the atom and great suns hid in a speck of dust" that Sitwell conjures up do seem to circlein grave eternity.
Elgar didn't entrust the orchestration of his tribute to Queen Alexandra to Anthony Payne, but he surely would have – Payne, having breathed life into the composer's fragmentary Third Symphony, confesses to sometimes feeling more like Elgar than himself. Whatever Elgar's last completed work, So Many True Princesses who have Gone, sounds like with the military band and chorus for which he intended it, its first performance with symphony orchestra and choir is so Elgarian, itleaves you wondering if Payne has a hotline to heaven. The formulaic elements are there: lilting strings, nostalgic woodwind and noble brass, with rolling timpani portraying "the tide of London life go roaring by". But Payne captures quintessential Elgar so naturally that the CBSO and the Britten-Pears and Tallis Chamber Choirs were able to respond with utter conviction.
The First World War has a ghostly presence in many of Holst's works, and he found in the universality and intimacy of Walt Whitman's poetry a frame on which to hang his spare sounds of regret and loss. Full of shadowy detail, his elegiac Ode to Death, with its touches of tuned percussion and delicate harp-writing, aches with sadness.
So, too, does Frank Bridge's boldly distinctive Oration, a full-scale cello concerto, filmic in its grotesque parody of military symbolism and haunting in its wistful threnody of an epilogue. Steven Isserlis was the intuitive soloist in an account that veered between ruminative regret and spitting venom.
Nielsen's Fifth Symphony was dedicated to the memory of the Queen Mother, patron of the Aldeburgh Festival for over 25 years. Oramo's powerful reading gave full prominence to the first movement's climax and meltdown, in which Hugh Kennedy was the tenacious side-drummer and Christopher Richards played the desolate clarinet solo.
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