Spirit of the Triennial Festival / OAE / Hickox, Town Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

This refreshing series of concerts celebrates the reopening last month of the gloriously refurbished Birmingham Town Hall by evoking the heyday of the city's Triennial Festival (from 1834 to 1912). Ten composers were honoured, with the event's midwife, Lyndon Jenkins, supplying witty introductions to each.

Cherubini (1760-1842), Beethoven's teacher, was firmly in Europe's musical pantheon in 1834, the year the Town Hall opened; although here his extensive overture to Anacréon felt like the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment drearily cranking up. One didn't go much on the tuning, or Richard Hickox's somewhat flailing pacings, plus some ragged detail all round.

Gounod (1818-93) was also lionised by the festival, using its chunky fees to stave off matrimonial-court claims. "Judex", an interlude from his second vast oratorio for Birmingham, Mors et vita, premiered in 1885 by the new director, Hans Richter, gained edge from the OAE's period instruments: a substantial bonbon.

Nineteenth-century Birmingham cut no corners: the new Town Hall organ was then Europe's largest and most powerful. Sad that Thomas Trotter, Birmingham's city organist, declined to play the shambolic composition with which the Austrian virtuoso Sigismund Neukomm launched it in 1834, going instead for Bach's "St Anne", played by Mendelssohn at the 1837 festival, one suspects with a firmer feel to the prelude. It was the spectacular strettoed climax to the fugue that impressed most here.

Soprano Joan Rodgers made hearts ache in Grieg songs and Mozart's Donna Elvira aria, despite meaningless "planned" gestures. Tenor James Gilchrist was stupendous in arias from The Creation and Elijah. And the OAE revealed, with the Overture Di Ballo (1870), how original a composer Sullivan was before G&S.

The star of the evening, however, was the fortepianist Melvyn Tan, whose commitment, left-hand articulation and singing dexterity produced a performance of Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto as memorable as the composer's must have been, 170 years ago almost to the day.

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