Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner
Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no.4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875)
Mazzoli Violent, Violent Sea (2011)
Debussy La Mer L109 (1903-05)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 May 2pm
Written by Richard Whitehouse
It may have been almost six months since the City of Birmingham Symphony last played to live audiences, but the frisson of expectation was palpable as the orchestra gradually took the stage for this first of nine concerts that, at around an hour’s duration, are being heard at 2pm then again at 6.30. The design of Symphony Hall’s platform makes it possible, moreover, to take out the raised platforms and so accommodate a larger number of musicians than would otherwise be possible in what is (hopefully!) a transitional period out of lockdown. Current restrictions still entail the spreading out of listeners, a small price to pay given the quality of acoustic at almost any point in this auditorium, while the rapid entry and exit procedures also enabled punters to assess the remodelled catering areas in advance of their June reopening.
As conducted by Edward Gardner, this programme featured works by two French composers with more in common than either could have suspected. Saint-Saëns nearly always brings out the best in Stephen Hough, and so it proved in this regrettably rare revival of the Fourth Piano Concerto. Its four sections grouped into two movements (a design the composer returned to a decade on with greater panache if less subtlety in his Third Symphony), the piece touches on aspects of sonata, variation and rondo procedures while its plain-spun material is developed in various and intriguing ways. This plus the close integration of soloist and orchestra often makes for a sinfonia concertante than concerto per se, yet there is no lack of virtuosity such as Hough despatched with alacrity – not least the cascading passagework in the final Allegro.
Saint-Saëns and Debussy evinced no mutual esteem, but as the former integrated symphonic elements into his concerto, so did the latter in his ‘three symphonic sketches’ which comprise La Mer. Here the CBSO came into its own, not least in the purposefully contrasted sequence of From Dawn to Midday on the Sea with its crepuscular writing for solo wind and divided strings through to a climactic chorale of visceral immediacy. Perhaps interplay of timbre and texture in Games of the Waves could have been more deftly handled, but Gardner exerted a firm grip over its course then drew real pathos from the final bars. He also found a persuasive balance between the volatile and poetic aspects in Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, while maintaining steady momentum as issued forth in the chorale on its proudly affirmative return.
Between these works, Violent, Violent Sea by the highly regarded American composer Missy Mazzoli elicited a wholly different response as to its marine concept. Here it is the constant yet rarely insistent melding of translucent harmonies and pulsating rhythms (stemming from marimba and vibraphone) as underpin this music; the sustaining of whose atmosphere is the keener for its succinct duration. The ranging of its relatively modest forces across the extent of the platform also made for rather greater impact than might otherwise have been the case. It certainly added to the attractions of a programme which launched this series of concerts in impressive fashion. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with Nicholas Collon at the helm for a sequence that ends with the uncompromising defiance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.
For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website
For further information about Missy Mazzoli, click here