Feast of Extravagantly Scored Music from CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, Prokofiev, Respighi: Freddy Kempf (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Litton (conductor). Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 20.2.2013 (JQ)

Elgar:  Symphonic Study: Falstaff, Op 68
Prokofiev:  Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, Op. 16
Respighi:  The Pines of Rome – Symphonic Poem

This was another in the CBSO’s 2020 Series in which, as a run-up to the orchestra’s centenary in 2020, they are showcasing works composed during the decade preceding the foundation of the orchestra. Both the Elgar and Prokofiev pieces fit nicely into this scheme since both date from 1913.

However, there’s an even more compelling reason for including Falstaff in this 2020 series, for on 10 November 1920 it was included in an all-Elgar programme which Sir Edward Elgar himself conducted as the inaugural concert of what was then the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Andrew Litton’s performance teemed with vitality and colour and the CBSO played the complex score superbly. I was a little disappointed in one facet of Mr Litton’s way with the score, however. I had the impression that the performance was a little fast and unrelenting in some places, such as in the first four or five minutes. I acknowledge that these pages are exciting and need to have vitality but it just seemed to me that Litton drove things a bit too urgently and this was sometimes the case, I felt, later on in the score as well. Listening at home to Elgar’s own superb 1931/2 recording – and, readily admitting that I am now recalling Andrew Litton’s performance from memory – I have the impression that in these early pages and elsewhere Elgar imparted rather more in terms of subtle variety of tempo. That said, I must go on to say that in my notes I scribbled down that I thought Litton took the little ‘pipe and tabor’ passages in the second Interlude very swiftly but on listening to Elgar’s recording I realise that he was just as swift at that point.

There was much to admire in this Litton reading. The tipsy bassoon solo after Falstaff has caroused in the Boar’s Head was inflected with genuine humour. When the fat knight falls asleep the sound of his snores was very pronounced, more so than I can recall hearing before. Initially I thought this overdone but then I realised that Falstaff is a larger-than-life character so perhaps larger-than-life snoring is what one should expect. The Dream Interlude was splendidly realised; leader Laurence Jackson’s solo playing was excellent and his fellow violinists matched his delicacy of touch. Swagger and brilliance greeted and epitomised the new King Henry while the moment of Falstaff’s rejection – and his surprise and hurt – was tellingly portrayed. The death of Sir John was portrayed with feeling. This wasn’t quite the performance of Falstaff for which I’d hoped but, as I say, there was much to admire nonetheless.

The surtitles board was used during the performance to indicate which section of the music was being played. That’s an excellent idea but I wonder if all the audience realised the facility was available; this could have been mentioned more prominently than it was in the programme. I think the board may have been positioned rather too high for the audience in the stalls.

The British pianist Freddy Kempf joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. I hadn’t realised until I saw copies on display before the concert that he and Andrew Litton have recorded this concerto. I haven’t heard the disc, of course, but I see my MusicWeb colleague, Dominy Clements reviewed it very positively and if the recording is as good as the performance we heard in Birmingham then I’m not surprised. It’s a strange work in many respects, not least in terms of the structure. For one thing it’s cast in four movements rather than the usual three and the finale seems to me to be rather episodic. As Calum MacDonald pointed out in his very good programme note, it was not well received when first played and though Mr MacDonald suggests that its stock has risen in recent years it’s still not played that often, I think.

It certainly requires a pianist of exceptional virtuosity as well as a conductor who is a very adroit accompanist: happily this performance had both. In the first movement the performers brought out well the piquancy of the march-like material but the high point was Kempf’s rendition of the formidable extended cadenza. This is a remarkable passage, demanding consummate technique and reserves of physical strength.  Kempf has both. He was commanding in this solo and although much of the music is forward looking and dissonant it also shows, I think, an awareness of the heritage of Russian Romantic piano music. The brief, fast and furious Scherzo was dispatched through dazzling fingerwork on Kempf’s part and no little dexterity from the CBSO under Litton’s alert and lively direction. Calum MacDonald describes the third movement Intermezzo as “dissonant and angular”. It was powerfully projected in this performance though there are also passages that call for finesse both from the orchestra and the soloist and these came off equally well. There’s a good deal of percussive, powerful music in the finale and this was excitingly delivered. Another demanding cadenza gave Kempf a further opportunity to show his mettle before the pyrotechnical end of the work. I’d not experienced this piece in the concert hall before but tonight’s performers made a powerful case for it and Kempf’s virtuosity was rightly acclaimed by the Birmingham audience.

Respighi’s Pini di Roma offered the strongest possible contrast with the Prokofiev. Litton launched into the Villa Borghese opening with great energy. This was a brilliant, sunlit opening, boisterous and full of vitality. The CBSO strings gave us a wonderfully hushed, atmospheric entry into the Catacombs. How maddening, therefore that a truly explosive cough from a member of the audience shattered the ambience that the players had done so much to create; sometimes the CBSO players must despair of their audience! Undeterred, Litton and the CBSO pressed on. The distant trumpet sounded from offstage on a gossamer bed of string tone in a most effective fashion before Litton built the movement to an imposing climax. The depiction of the Pines of the Janiculum was introduced by a wonderfully limpid clarinet solo, supported superbly by the strings. Respighi’s indulgent scoring was sensitively realised by Litton and the orchestra in a seductively warm performance. At the end the clarinet beguiled us once more before the nightingale sang out over truly magical sounds from the harp and strings.

The Pines of the Appian Way brought a thunderous conclusion – eventually. Litton meticulously controlled this movement right from the opening with its distant, ominous tread. It’s easy to peak too soon in this movement, especially when you add to Respighi’s already extravagant orchestral forces the Symphony Hall organ and six extra brass players high up behind the orchestra next to the organ console. Litton didn’t fall into this trap. Indeed, at one point he made a point of ensuring that a string theme, which can easily be lost in the tumult, came through properly. He brought the music to an overwhelming, roof-rattling climax of brazen power; the glory and might of Imperial Rome was there in Technicolor. Oliver Goldsmith’s lines came to mind:

‘Pride in their port, defiance in their eye
I see the Lords of human kind pass by.’

Once again the CBSO was on cracking form in this concert and it was evident from their response to him that they like working with Andrew Litton. I thought this programme was a mouth-watering, fascinating feast of extravagantly scored orchestral music when I first saw it advertised and it lived up to my expectations. There were a surprising number of empty seats in Symphony Hall; those who stayed away were the losers.

John Quinn