An Excellent CBSO Concert Despite a Late Change of Conductor


R Strauss, Copland, Rachmaninov: Oliver Janes (clarinet); City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Gourlay, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 6.4.2017. (JQ)

R Strauss Don Juan

Copland – Clarinet Concerto

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

This afternoon concert, the first of a pair, was to have been conducted by the CBSO’s Music Director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. However, a severe ear infection had laid her low – I wondered if she had been deafened by the quartet of alp-horns that featured in the concert she conducted in Los Angeles last Sunday (review). Into the breach at something like 48 hours’ notice stepped Andrew Gourlay. The advertised programme was a tricky one but there was only one casualty: We were due to hear the UK premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Golden Key, Suite No.4. Not unreasonably, Mr. Gourlay substituted the Strauss tone poem.

I have not previously seen Andrew Gourlay conduct, though I’ve heard some good things about him, mainly in connection with the Hallé where he spent some time as assistant to Sir Mark Elder after winning the Cadaqués International Conducting Competition in 2010.  In January 2016 he became Music Director of the Orquestra Sinfónica de Castilla y Léon based in the Spanish city of Valladolid – he had served as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor since 2014/15.

The concert got off to a bracing start with Don Juan, The opening was thrusting and much that followed was extrovert and dynamic. However, the more lyrical aspects of the work were by no means short-changed. The Love Music, dominated by a melting oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons), featured glowing playing from all involved; here the CBSO showed collective finesse. The love-making over, Elspeth Dutch and her colleagues in the horn section were suitably exultant and there was considerable swagger and brio in the pages that followed. The Don’s death was depicted very well. This was a fine opener to the concert.

Oliver Janes, the CBSO’s principal clarinet since December 2014, was the soloist for the Copland concerto. Mr Janes has had a meteoric rise. He only took up the instrument in 2008 at the age of 15. After studies at Chetham’s School of Music and the Royal Academy he worked briefly as a freelance. He must have a prodigious talent to have landed the principal’s job with the CBSO, one of the UK’s leading orchestras, as his first permanent position. I was amazed to read in the programme that this performance was to be his first full concerto performance in public. One would not have known, so assured was his playing.

The Copland concerto, scored for an orchestra of strings, harp and piano, is a very fine work indeed. It was written for Benny Goodman and in its two fairly brief movements it seems to me that Copland gave full rein to the two great pillars of Goodman’s talent. The first movement is soulful and lyrical – as I listened I recalled that I have in my collection an excellent CD on which Goodman plays both the Concerto and Clarinet Quintet of Mozart; both performances are splendid. In the second movement Copland captures the essence of Goodman, the king of the jazz clarinet. Our soloist today was equally successful with both aspects of the concerto. I admired his winning phrasing in the first movement, where he made his instrument sing beautifully while Copland exploits the instrument’s full compass. Here the music seemed to move effortlessly on a lovely thread of sound. A cadenza links the two movements and here Copland ups the tempo and sets the scene for the lively party that’s to follow in the second movement. The perky, jazzy music of the second movement was played vivaciously by Janes and he received splendid support from Gourlay and the orchestra. The accompaniment was consistently alert and there was a good sense of swing in the blues-inflected passages. This excellent and highly accomplished performance of the concerto was warmly received, and rightly so.

Rachmaninov’s final symphony, completed in 1936, was slow to establish itself despite early advocacy from Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, who premiered it, and despite the fact that it received an early recording in which the same orchestra was conducted by the composer himself. That recording, made in 1939, is still available on CD and is well worth seeking out (review). I was interested to learn that it was not until 1983 that it entered the repertoire of the CBSO. In his programme note Andrew Huth made the very valid observation that the symphony “stands in an uneasy position between two worlds: the Russia that Rachmaninov had lost after the Revolution and the uncertain world of inter-war Western Europe and America.” I wouldn’t disagree with that for a minute. It seemed to me that Andrew Gourlay’s performance leaned more towards the Russian aspect of the symphony but I mean that as an observation, not a criticism.

The first of the three movements had many energetic, colourful episodes but, as ever with this composer, bitter-sweet melancholy is never far away. The yearning string melody, beautifully introduced by the cellos a couple of minutes in, was given full value though never over-indulged. I thought Gourlay showed a good sense of the ebb and flow that’s needed in a Rachmaninov performance: his rubato was stylish. The second movement is really two movements in one because the central section is, in effect, a scherzo. Introduced by fine horn and violin solos (Elspeth Dutch and Tamás András respectively), the trademark soulful lyricism of the slow material was beautifully delivered by the orchestra. In these expansive passages I though Gourlay conducted very well; I liked the way he shaped the music with feeling yet kept it moving forwards. The scherzo episode was full of dash, the playing pointed, and when the music of the slow movement proper returned it was eloquently done.

The finale began with great drive but soon the composer treats us to another of his sweeping, expansive string melodies – the CBSO violins clearly relished this passage. I find it hard to discern the structure of this movement – my fault, I’m certain, and does it matter? What I take to be the development section is led off by a short but gutsy string fugue. In the pages that followed whenever the music was strong in nature the orchestra’s attack was commendably keen. In this movement all the varied and often rich colours of Rachmaninov’s orchestral palette were expertly brought out by Gourlay and his players. Indeed. that was the case throughout the symphony. Gourlay whipped up the closing pages to bring the symphony to an exciting conclusion. This was an excellent account of Rachmaninov’s Third and it’s further whetted my appetite for the concert in a few weeks’ time when the CBSO will be playing the masterly Symphonic Dances.

This programme will be repeated in Symphony Hall on Saturday 8 April. If you can’t to Birmingham to hear it then BBC Radio 3 will be recording the concert for broadcast on Tuesday 18 April. It should be well worth catching.

This was an impressive and enjoyable concert which bore no trace of the late substitution of the conductor. It seemed to me that there was a good rapport between Andrew Gourlay and the CBSO and I hope it won’t be long before he’s invited to return.

John Quinn      

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  1. John Quinn says:

    Clarinet playing runs in the family as far as Oliver Janes is concerned. His grandfather, John Fuest, also served as the CBSO’s principal clarinet (1955-70). I was aware of that family connection from the biographical information programme for yesterday’s concert.

    However, long-term CBSO follower, Tim Walton, has drawn my attention to a very pleasing coincidence. Almost fifty years ago to the day John Fuest, like his grandson, appeared as a concerto soloist with the CBSO. On 13 April 1967 the orchestra gave their annual concert in Town Hall, Birmingham in support of their Welfare and Benevolent Fund. The conductor was Rudolf Schwarz and the programme included the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, played by John Fuest.

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