Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (1910)
Haydn Cello Concerto no.1 in C major Hob.VIIb/1 (c1761)
Elgar Sospiri Op.70 (1914)
Weinberg Flute Concerto no.1 Op.75 (1961)
Britten The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra Op.34 (1945)
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Marie-Christine Zupancic (flute), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 6 October 2022
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse
Shortly to embark on its first tour of the United States in almost a quarter-century, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra tonight played some of the pieces to be included there – a diverse selection that amounted to a cohesive and well-balanced programme on its own terms.
Opening the concert was one of those pieces heard on the CBSO’s album The British Project, and while this orchestra has performed Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis often, Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla relatively swift traversal compelled attention. The opening stages felt a little detached – the offstage ‘orchestra’, placed offstage-left, more a background presence than active participant – but the string quartet contribution was eloquently rendered while the approach to the main climax was as unerringly judged as that resonant final chord.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been playing Haydn’s cello concertos extensively, so there was no doubting the control and insight brought to the C major work – earliest of the pair and poised between the Baroque and Classical eras in its combining formal lucidity with melodic poise. Kanneh-Mason was mindful of the opening movement’s Moderato indication, maintaining a steady and never headlong tempo that allowed his tonal finesse and elegance of phrasing full rein. The Adagio could have had greater inward intensity, but not that stealthy transition into the return of the main theme, and the final Allegro had wit and incisiveness aplenty. A much-reduced CBSO was responsive in support – Kanneh-Mason offering an unlikely yet appealing pizzicato take on Bacharach’s I Say a Little Prayer (found on his new album Song) as encore.
There cannot have been many times when Elgar’s Sospiri began the second half, but it did so this evening to enticing effect. MG-T drew out its pathos without no trace of affectation, and if the organ part was missing, the strings’ burnished eloquence was more than compensation.
After last week’s public premiere of his Jewish Rhapsody, MG-T turned to (relatively) more familiar Weinberg with his First Flute Concerto. It also proved an ideal showcase for Marie-Christine Zupancic, longstanding section-leader of the CBSO, to demonstrate her prowess as soloist – whether in the energetic interplay of the initial Allegro, deftly understated threnody of the Adagio, or whimsical humour of an Allegro that anticipates Weinberg finales to come. The strings responded with alacrity to a piece now taking its place in a still-limited repertoire.
Britten‘s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra has not been out of the repertoire in 77 years and it remains not just the finest educational work of its kind but an impressive showpiece in its own right. With the CBSO heard at full strength for the only time tonight, MG-T directed a performance which only fell short in the rather stolid rendering of the theme at the start. The traversal through the four orchestral sections threw up various distinctive cameos, while the closing fugue duly put the orchestra back together for what was an exhilarating apotheosis.
This was not quite the end, MG-T introducing the encore to feature on tour – Thomas Adès’s O Albion (from his quartet Arcadiana), here suitably evocative even if the irony of playing so -named a piece to a Birmingham audience can hardly have been lost on most of those present.
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. For more information on the artists, click on the names of Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Marie-Christine Zupancic for more information, and head to the website of Mieczyslaw Weinberg for more information on the composer.