Gershwin (arr. Bennett) Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture (1942)
Glazunov Violin Concerto in A minor Op.82 (1904)
Rachmaninoff Symphony no.3 in A minor Op.44 (1935-6)
Ning Feng (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 1 December 2021 (2.15pm)
Written by Richard Whitehouse. Photo of Ning Feng (c) Felix Broede
John Wilson may have been taken by surprise when asked to introduce this afternoon concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but there was nothing left to chance as to the performances in what proved to be a judiciously planned and finely realized programme.
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is now well-established as an opera as much as a musical (hybrid or otherwise), not least through Wilson’s advocacy at English National Opera’s staging three seasons ago, but there is still a place for the ‘Symphonic Picture’ as posthumously realized by Robert Russell Bennett. The pre-eminent arranger and orchestrator from Broadway’s ‘golden age’, Bennett may have regarded Gershwin’s masterpiece as essentially a sequence of classy showtunes, but the finesse with which these were fashioned into a cumulative overview of the drama cannot be gainsaid. Wilson drew sumptuous playing from the CBSO in an arrangement by no means dismissive of Gershwin’s orchestration. Perhaps another time he could schedule the far more arresting Catfish Row suite, but so fine a reading of the Bennett was no hardship.
If Glazunov refused Gershwin’s request for tuition, he surely realized no amount of technique could compensate for – in the former’s case – limited or erratic inspiration. Not that his Violin Concerto is an unalloyed masterpiece, but its expressive elegance allied to a formal ingenuity have deservedly kept it in the repertoire and Ning Feng (above) audibly believed in every bar. Maybe the presentation of its main themes in the brief opening section was a little too matter-of-fact, but the central ‘slow movement’ then ensuing development and scherzo were rendered with the right deftness and incisiveness; nor did a relatively lengthy cadenza hang fire on the way to a ‘finale’ that ensured a scintillating close. A sympathetic accompanist, Wilson judged the orchestra’s contribution to a nicety, with some especially felicitous playing from woodwind.
It was Glazunov’s disastrous conducting that had sunk Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony but, four decades later, the Third Symphony finds the latter near the height of his creative powers – its pithy melodic content harnessed to an orchestral astringency that underlines the exiled composer’s confrontation with though not embracing of the musical present. Right from its haunting ‘motto’, through its contrasted themes (with exposition repeat) then a development that culminates in graphic anguish, Wilson had the measure of this masterly first movement.
What ensued was almost as fine, not least the seamlessness with which the slow movement’s scherzo emerged out of then back into the main Adagio – the playing off the acerbic against the bittersweet its own justification. If the finale felt a little too sectional in overall unfolding, there was no lack of characterization – not least the strings’ superb articulation in the central fugato as this headed towards the reprise, though a more continuous acceleration might have imbued the coda with even greater conclusiveness in what is a QED of unequivocal defiance.
Even so, this was a confident and, for the most part, insightful performance of a work whose true emotions are barely concealed beneath the enticing surface. The CBSO, which gave its all, will be back at Symphony Hall next Thursday in a major new work from Jonathan Dove.