The Will-o'-the-Wisps Go to Town, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture

The CBSO marked the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth with an enchanting world premiere by Denmark's leading contemporary composer, Per Norgard. The Will-o'-the-Wisps Go to Town is a giant, 50-minute "fairy-tale cantata", based on one of the author's last stories.

In Andersen's original tale, a fairy-tale writer's inspiration has deserted him due to the devastating effects of war. The Marsh Witch tells him about the Will-o'-the-Wisps, whose arrival abruptly ends the narrative. The contemporary Danish poet Suzanne Brogger has continued and updated the story: the Will-o'-the-Wisps are ineffective amid the corruption of modern urban civilisation. A concluding hymn to fairy tales, however, is cautiously optimistic.

The style was cheerfully eclectic: the opening "1864 Overture" began as a Mahlerian idyll with pastoral woodwind evoking the Danish countryside; a section introducing the choruses incorporated jazz elements; the Sprechstimme of the Marsh Witch's diatribes recalled Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (a speciality of the mezzo soloist Helene Gjerris); while the uplifting ending, rejoicing in the restorative qualities of fairy tales, had a Tippett-like sense of wonder.

Rumon Gamba presided over the assembled forces with impressive dynamism. The CBSO responded with vibrant playing, acutely attuned to the variously hued 12 scenes of the piece. Of the excellent singers, the children's chorus displayed exemplary commitment.

The cantata might have been even more effective if parts of it had been staged. There were tantalising hints at the theatrical potential of the piece: the Marsh Witch's spellbinding entrance, for example, with wild eyes, flaming red hair and bare feet, or narrator Simon Callow's delightfully bewildered jolt into consciousness as the Marsh Witch rudely interrupted his slumber. The Will-o'-the-Wisps themselves, clad in bright yellow, were a bewitching sight, yet seemed hemmed in and constrained by their formal arrangement in serried ranks. Surely such impish spirits should scurry about the stage?

The second half of the concert was dedicated to a selection from Grieg's incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt, linked by text from the play. Callow came into his own, endowing the titular anti-hero with a broad Yorkshire accent, relishing the story's frequently bawdy and politically incorrect aspects and yet never losing sight of the tale's profound humanity, especially in the moving scene where Gynt visits his dying mother. It was particularly illuminating to have Grieg's famous "Death of Ase" set in the context of the play and to marvel at how faithfully the composer's score observes the story's mood. "Solveig's Cradle Song", with the dying Peer Gynt nursed in the arms of his faithful lover, made a poignant conclusion to an evening that triumphantly celebrated the power of storytelling.