Kodály Dances of Galánta (1933)
Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934)
Debussy Nocturnes – Sirènes (1899)
Stravinsky The Firebird – Suite (1919)
Sunwook Kim (piano, below), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Mihhail Gerts
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 17 February 2022
Written by Richard Whitehouse
As Mihhail Gerts (taking over at short notice from Lionel Bringuier) said in his initial remarks, all four pieces in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were written by composers born within 20 years of each other and made for some intriguing interconnections.
Youngest of these composers, Kodály’s piece was on one level the most traditional – Dances of Galánta looking back to the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt with its bringing together folk melodies in a free flowing fantasia whose larger paragraphs were judiciously shaped by Gerts so that a cumulative overall structure was always evident. The CBSO responded with alacrity to Kodály’s vivid if sometimes workaday orchestration, Oliver Janes making the most of the clarinet solo as stealthily sets the course for all that follows through to a teasing final pay-off.
By the time of Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff’s music had all but shed its earlier opulence for a tensile, even sardonic quality pointing up expressive contrasts between the 24 variations which fall naturally while ingeniously into a three-movement continuity. It helped that Sunwook Kim constantly brought out those subtle changes of emphasis to which the theme is put, not least when combined with the Dies irae plainchant as if to underline the darker ambivalence at work in this music. That said, the 16th and 17th variations might have been probed even more deeply, so making the famous 18th more affecting in its catharsis, but the six variations of the ‘finale’ headed with unfailing panache to the suitably deadpan close – Kim responding to the enthusiastic applause with a limpid take on Brahms’s Intermezzo in A.
Whether or not it was the earliest piece to use wordless voices as a facet of the orchestration, Debussy’s Sirènes provided a template for numerous comparably innovative works across the next quarter-century and beyond. Gerts was scrupulous as to his enfolding of the textural strands into a cohesive and diaphanous whole; one to which the CBSO Youth Chorus made a suitably ethereal contribution. Nor was this too passive a reading as it moved with notably restive intent toward a culmination which brought a necessary measure of emotional repose.
But (and to misquote Ronald Reagan’s immortal words) ‘where was the rest of it’? Debussy’s Nocturnes being as integrated a triptych as his later La Mer or Ibéria, it seemed unfortunate to jettison Nuages and Fêtes – especially as they would have added no more than 15 minutes to a relatively short programme rounded off with Stravinsky’s The Firebird. This was heard in its 1919 suite, currently returning to favour given the over-exposure of the complete ballet over recent decades. Gerts duly encouraged the CBSO to give its all – whether in the sombre Introduction and a dextrous Dance of the Firebird, the affecting poise of The Princesses’ Khorovod or animated virtuosity of Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, then a Berceuse of real pathos as merged seamlessly into a Finale which conveyed the necessary emotional frisson.
A fine showing for Gerts who, as artistic director of the TubIN Festival, ought to be invited to schedule the Estonian’s Sixth Symphony on a future appearance. The CBSO returns next week in a concert featuring a UK premiere for R. Nathaniel Dett’s oratorio The Ordering of Moses.