In concert – Alban Gerhardt, CBSO / Roderick Cox: Ravel, Saint-Saëns & Bartók

Alban Gerhardt (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Roderick Cox

Ravel Ma mère l’Oye – suite (1910, orch. 1911)
Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor Op.33 (1872)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra BB123 (1943, rev. 1945)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 16 February 2023 (2.15pm)

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This afternoon’s concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra brought a judicious programme that not only looked effective on paper but worked well in practice, juxtaposing characteristic works by Ravel and Bartók alongside a favourite concerto from Saint-Saëns.

Although the extended ballet was championed by Simon Rattle during his CBSO tenure, the original five items constituting Ravel’s Mother Goose suite (the Prelude was included on the programme but (rightly) not in this performance) constitutes an attractive sequence and one that played to the orchestra’s strengths. Roderick Cox brought out the serene poignancy of Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane as fully as the winsome poise of Hop-o’-My-Thumb, with its delectable playing from woodwind. Neither was the piquant humour in Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas undersold, nor the stealthy interplay of gentility and earthiness in Dialogue of Beauty and the Beast. Initially a little muted in its rapture, The Fairy Garden built towards a finely sustained apotheosis whose unforced ecstasy was much in evidence.

Saint-Saëns has long enjoyed a following in Birmingham – not least his First Cello Concerto, which this reviewer first heard played by CBSO with the redoubtable Paul Tortelier almost a half-century ago. Evidently no stranger to this piece, Alban Gerhardt launched into the first of its three continuous movements with due purposefulness; pointing up the formal ingenuity as the composer interposes between what are nominally the exposition and development of a sonata design a ‘minuetto’ where soloist and muted strings render the principal themes at an oblique remove. The relatively extended final section can risk feeling diffuse, but Gerhardt’s focus brought a natural sense of intensification then resolution prior to the decisive close. The soulful opening Dialogo from Ligeti’s early Solo Cello Sonata provided an apposite encore.

A staple of the modern repertoire in almost as short a time as it took to be composed, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a sure test for any such ensemble and one that the CBSO met with alacrity on this occasion. Setting a steady if never inflexible tempo for the Introduzione, Cox drew its contrasts of musing uncertainty and impulsive dynamism into a tensile and cohesive whole. Hardly less effective was the genial succession of duets in Giuoco delle coppie, set in relief by a brass chorale which makes for one of its composer’s most affecting inspirations.

Its sombreness marginally underplayed in its opening stages, the Elegia lacked nothing in eloquence at its climaxes or in its regretful closing bars, then a juxtaposing of folksong with Léhar and/or Shostakovich in the Intermezzo interrotto made for a heady while meaningful amalgam. It might not have followed-on attacca, but the Finale was otherwise the highlight of the reading – Cox as attentive to the music’s energetic and lyrical elements as to a central fugato whose initial fanfares return to cap the work, and this performance, in joyous abandon.

Born in Macon (Georgia) and currently based in Berlin, Cox is a fluent and assured presence such as helped make this an auspicious debut. The CBSO returns next week for an appealing programme with Ilan Volkov, featuring Isata Kanneh-Mason in Prokofiev’s Third Concerto.

You can read all about the 2022/23 season and book tickets at the CBSO website. Click on the artist names for more on Roderick Cox and Alban Gerhardt.

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