Wagner Lohengrin – Prelude to Act One (1846)
Beethoven Piano Concerto no.5 in E flat major Op. 73 ‘Emperor’ (1809)
Prokofiev Symphony no.5 in B flat major Op. 100 (1944)
Cédric Tiberghien (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Eduardo Strausser
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 25 January 2023 2.15pm
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Picture of Eduardo Strausser (c) Peter Wallis
Is there a more evocative way to begin a concert than the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin? The opera itself may fail (for the most part) to live up to the precedent set, but the quality of this piece has never been in doubt – with composers as distinct as Berlioz and Verdi having been captivated by its almost tangible atmosphere and counterpoint redolent of Palestrina in its supple inevitability. Under the assured direction of Eduardo Strausser, it made a fitting curtain-raiser to this afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
It also provided a telling foil to Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto that followed in the first half. Still the most popular of its composer’s such pieces, it is also nowadays the hardest to bring off – particularly the initial Allegro with its unabashed emotional rhetoric and overtly symphonic conception. Playing down the former aspect and rationalizing the latter, Cédric Tiberghien opted for a tensile and unaffected traversal which emphasized cohesion at the expense of grandeur – underlining just why Beethoven never again completed a concerto.
There was little to fault in Tiberghien’s take on the Adagio (save for a few errors to remind one that Beethoven’s slower music is by no means easier to play), and if the transition into the finale was less than spellbinding, that latter movement for the most part brought out the best in the rapport between pianist and conductor. The CBSO responded with the necessary rhythmic agility, and Tiberghien responded to the applause with excerpts from the Eroica Variations he has recently recorded as part of an edition of Beethoven’s works in this genre.
The engaging director of last year’s Viennese New Year concert, Strausser (above) clearly enjoys a rapport with this orchestra as was a hallmark of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony following the interval. Itself the most often heard of a diverse and often diffuse cycle (the ‘Classical’ more often encountered on recording than in concert), it presents notable difficulties of balance and pacing – notably the initial Andante, whose accumulating momentum needs careful handling so as not to congeal. Strausser duly had its measure, maintaining focus through to a seismic peroration – the impact from which carried over into a scherzo whose outer sections seemed more than unusually acerbic. Nor did this preclude a more genial response in the trio, its main theme held over from Romeo and Juliet and as captivating a melody as any by this composer.
That the Adagio is the emotional heart of this work only increases the need to prevent it from dragging, and Strausser’s sense of proportion ensured that the sense of dread made explicit at its climax was balanced by the serene eloquence towards its close. Heading (rightly) straight into finale, he steered a secure course through a movement whose poise is constantly being undercut by disruptive elements as take control in the coda – the composer’s perspective on imminent Soviet victory in the ‘Great Patriotic War’ remaining ambivalent even at the close.
A fine reading of a work whose stature is still questioned (and a reminder that Prokofiev’s Second Symphony still awaits its CBSO debut). Chief Conductor-designate Kazuki Yamada returns next week for an unlikely though appealing double-bill of Tchaikovsky and Holst.
You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website – and head to this page for the Tchaikovsky and Holst programme. Click on the artist names for more on Eduardo Strausser and Cédric Tiberghien