CBSO's second main concert in their celebration of the 1950s revealed a quite different side of this much-maligned decade. An outbreak of tonality in the shape of Martinu's rarely heard oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh and Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony did much for everyone's understanding of the Fifties, complementing rather than contradicting the modernist orgy of Messiaen and Stockhausen at their most uncompromising featured in their first concert.
Gilgamesh was a brave choice. It's an elusive work whose obscure, ancient Sumerian text (especially unhelpful in the English translation of Campbell Thomson which Martinu used) can seem to ask more questions than it answers. Musically it also poses considerable problems for the performers. Martinu's spare lines and quirky sense of motion add up to the sort of piece that only "comes together" after much effort, late in the process of rehearsal.
CBSO began its exhumation of the score by commissioning a revision of the libretto. Amanda Holden's makeover not only banished the odd "snood" and "awn", but made the whole text far punchier and comprehensible for performers and audience. The finished product from choir, orchestra and soloists must rank among Rattle's finest rehabilitations, proving beyond doubt the viability of this unsettling masterpiece. The story of Gilgamesh may be nearly 5,000 years old, but it sprang to life with searing immediacy. The sense of involvement from the soloists, in particular Rita Cullis and David Wilson-Johnson, was complete. Rattle handled the accompaniment with profound insight, turning a score which, in the wrong hands, can sound close to organised chaos, into a miracle of luminosity.
And then there was the chorus; it would be hard to imagine a more thrilling rendition of Martinu's angular, bittersweet harmonies. Their richness of tone, razor-sharp ensemble and above all, near-superhuman clarity of diction made this their most memorable outing of recent years. The only slight miscalculation in an otherwise richly convincing performance was the decision to divide the brief stretches of spoken narration between the male soloists. Part of the secret of Martinu's storytelling is the distance a separate narrator provides.
The contrast between the sober clarity of Martinu's vision of ancient mythology and one of Shostakovich's strongest, and most personal, symphonies was a bold piece of programming. Whether or not Shostakovich's Tenth, with its ludicrously bombastic finale, is a joke at the expense of a vindictive Soviet regime didn't seem to be the issue at stake. Providing a context for the modern repertoire is one of the most virtuous aims of the "Towards the Millennium" festival. Nevertheless, Rattle and the orchestra left context, not to mention worries about what it all means, behind in a performance that played the work for all it was worth in purely musical terms. The wind solos of the third movement may have developed an almost operatic personality and the fast music had an impassioned conviction which took it well beyond the abstract, but the performers never fell into the trap of preaching. If their performance didn't quite plumb the depths of one of the 20th century's most tortured souls, it did the equally estimable service of liberating this symphony from the wretchedness of the life from which it sprang.
Simon Rattle and the CBSO perform Britten, Stravinsky and Shostakovich for the final Birmingham concert in the `Towards the Millennium' series on Tuesday. Booking: 0121-212 3333
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