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Review: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

The combination of The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and violinist Nicola Benedetti is a formula likely to impress many as close to perfection, and from the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major it was obvious that the capacity audience at The Corn Exchange on Friday evening was never going to be disappointed.

Klaus Mäkelä, guest conductor and Chief Conductor Designate of the Oslo Philharmonic accompanied the virtuoso violinist to the platform for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s celebrated concerto, a composition written amazingly by its composer in less than two weeks.

Nicola Bendetti (28830441)
Nicola Bendetti (28830441)

Nicola of course took it in her stride, but although she has doubtlessly often performed it she displayed that concentration, absolute focus and dedication throughout, recognisably the hallmarks of a true musician who is able to bring to the work at hand the delight of an almost first encounter and transmit it to an audience.

There were some beautiful sequences in her performance, especially in the remote second movement which the composer titled ‘Canzonetta’ (a little song).

Its distinctive Russian melancholy leads without a break to the passionate and headlong third movement. Again unmistakably Russian, a dance, folksy in tone with a rustic droning, begins slowly, accelerating to wild abandonment in the manner of ‘Kalinka’, the folk tune the Red Army Choir probably introduced most of us to.

Nicola Benedetti, as the programme notes remarked, ‘plays the Gariel Stradivarius (1717)’, and the warm tone of the instrument in her hands complemented those rich and celebrated tonal qualities of the CBSO, a combination from which Klaus Mäkelä, himself a cellist of renown, was able to evoke an overall sound of great beauty.

CBSO (28830445)
CBSO (28830445)

After the interval the Orchestra performed the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, written only a handful of years after Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and an even more revolutionary work in purpose and design than that had been.

Berlioz originally wrote a programme outlining the story he was telling, but later dispensed with it as he believed the music should be narrative enough. Here he anticipated Mahler who said in connection with his 3rd Symphony that ‘no music is worth anything if you first have to tell the listener what experience lies behind it.’

For Berlioz, the instruments alone are meant to be capable of providing drama, the genre he so much admired.

Berlioz was of course a full-blown Romantic. Not only did his symphony take Beethoven’s 9th further, but it also equally gained inspiration from his 6th (The ‘Pastoral’). The ‘Scène au champs’ (3rd movement) owed its scene-painting to Beethoven’s imitations in music of the natural world.

But like Berlioz, Beethoven had also stressed the centrality of the ‘self’: Music, he said, is ‘the expression of feeling rather than painting’. And in this semi-autobiographical work Berlioz, like many another Romantic, is the hero of his own story. Passions, revolution and dreams give birth to some wonderful music in Symphonie fantastique, so captivatingly demonstrated by CBSO.

Nicola Bendetti (28830436)
Nicola Bendetti (28830436)

This extraordinary work allowed the virtuosity of all CBSO’s sections to be fully on display. Each of course was as super-talented as another, but there was a special roar of applause for the percussionists and timpanists. Where else could not one but two bass drums be observed going at full pelt together?

The Boldfield Orchestral Series current season continues at The Corn Exchange on 19 February, when The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (soloist Leon McCawley) will perform works by Glinka, Beethoven (Piano Concerto No.1) and Tchaikovsky (5th Symphony). All told, another great evening of music making to anticipate.


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