City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla
Gipps Symphony no.2 Op.30 (1945)
Adès: The Exterminating Angel Symphony (2020) [CBSO Centenary Commission: World premiere]
Brahms Symphony no.3 in F major Op.90 (1883)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 4 August 2021
Written by Richard Whitehouse
This unexpected yet worthwhile addition to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s season saw the revival of two works recently heard along with a belated premiere – twice postponed – for one of the most notable among the orchestra’s impressive roster of Centenary Commissions.
Its UK premiere guardedly received four years ago, Thomas Adès’s third opera felt limited as to provocative intent by the difficulty of transferring its theme of Spanish religious fascism to a different era. What was undeniable is the suitability of its numerous orchestral passages to being rendered in a more abstract context, hence The Exterminating Angel Symphony heard tonight. Its four sections arguably amount to a symphonic suite rather than symphony per se, yet their formal follow-through undoubtedly makes for a cohesive and finely balanced entity.
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla evidently thought so – obtaining an incisive response in the ‘Entrances’ music whose expressive ambivalence intensifies second time around, then a virtuosic one in ‘March’; its malevolence building over a remorseless side-drum tattoo in a vivid foretaste of what lies ahead. Although it draws on one of the opera’s love-duets, ‘Berceuse’ seems a little unyielding in its emotional content despite the allure of scoring as was always apparent here. It remains for ‘Waltzes’ (following without pause) to provide a suitable finale and, while this extended and ingeniously organized sequence of fragments from across the opera undeniably evokes a notable precedent in terms of its inexorable motion toward ultimate catastrophe, the animation and sheer panache of the CBSO’s playing brought about a suitably emphatic close.
Before this MGT again made a persuasive case for the Second Symphony by the orchestra’s one-time oboist Ruth Gipps, the contrasted sections of its single movement – a martial scherzo and eloquent Adagio framed by an ambivalent Moderato and cumulatively energetic Allegro – audibly unfolding as variations on an evocative theme heard at the start. An autobiographical aspect, concerning personal aspirations near the end of war, explains this piece’s confessional nature. Whether or not it will undergo several further decades of neglect remains to be seen.
After the interval came Brahms’s Third Symphony, which orchestra and conductor had given before the lockdown last December. Tonight, however, the first movement (exposition repeat taken) was purposefully controlled with real cumulative thrust, a less than decisive transition into the reprise affording the only lapse in momentum prior to a coda of unfettered eloquence. The Andante was once again unerringly shaped in terms of its ruminative contrasts, and if the third movement had now become a little torpid, this hardly affected its unforced pathos. MGT rightly made the finale the culmination in every sense, her tautening of tension at the apex of its development yielding as tangible an expressive frisson as did the coda – where the work’s main motif descends as if from afar to secure the most transfigured of emotional touchdowns.
A memorable addition to an inevitably truncated yet memorable (and for all the right reasons) season, which the CBSO repeated at the Proms the following night. Beyond that, the autumn portion of its 2021/22 season has just been announced.
You can find information on the CBSO’s new season here.