United Kingdom Mussorgsky, Sibelius, Debussy, Stravinsky: James Ehnes (violin), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Simone Young (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 16.2.2013 (JQ)
Mussorgsky, orch Shostakovich: Khovanschina – Prelude
Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1919)
This programme, entitled The Year 1913 – Ballets Russes, had been planned as Simone Young’s debut with the CBSO. However, last December her debut took place earlier than envisaged when she deputised at short notice for an indisposed Andris Nelsons to lead the orchestra in a memorable account of Bruckner’s Eighth (review). The chosen programme for this concert could scarcely have been more different. It was part of the CBSO’s 2020 series: in the run-up to their centenary in the year 2020 they are putting a focus each year on music first heard in the decade preceding the orchestra’s formation: they’ve now reached 1913, the year that saw the première of Jeux.
Ms Young opened with the only work out of the four that was not composed in the twentieth century: the Prelude to Mussorgsky’s last and uncompleted opera, Khovanschina. This is a tricky piece to start with ‘cold’ but the performance was soon into its stride, the CBSO responding well to their guest conductor. The highlight, as far as I was concerned, came at the close with a beguiling clarinet solo over hushed strings. The player was one of several singled out for a bow by the conductor at the end: it’s a nice feature of Ms Young’s style that regularly she will bring members of the orchestra to their feet before taking her own bow.
The Mussorgsky, with its rarified, delicate ambience, proved a shrewd choice as a prelude to the Sibelius Violin Concerto. The Canadian virtuoso, James Ehnes impressed from the start. He has a very natural platform presence, completely devoid of showiness, and his seemingly effortless technique put him in full command of this demanding concerto. So, for example, he was able to bring both dazzle and poetry to the first movement cadenza. His singing tone, especially rich on the G string, was a delight in the wonderful slow movement. Ehnes plays on a 1715 Stradivarius, the so-called ‘Marsick’ violin, and it’s clearly a glorious instrument, especially in his hands. He projected his sound wonderfully, even in the quietest of passages. This account of the slow movement was enthralling from start to finish. Soloist and conductor were at one throughout the concerto but nowhere more so than in the finale, which was given an urgent and exciting reading. As in the first movement, Simone Young made one realise how close to the sound world of the composer’s first two symphonies many of the tutti passages are. Ehnes was superb once again and the contribution of the CBSO was memorable. As an encore Mr Ehnes gave us the Largo from Bach’s Third Violin Sonata. Here sovereign purity of tone was allied to simplicity of style in a marvellous performance that was an ideal foil to the preceding concerto.
Debussy’s Jeux has been selected as one of the scores that represent 1913 in the survey of the decade preceding the CBSO’s foundation. (Which works premièred in 1914 will we hear in next year’s concerts, I wonder?) It’s one of Debussy’s most elusive scores and the fact that the ballet scenario devised for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes is pretty flimsy doesn’t exactly help its cause. Probably the best way to approach it in concert is to sit back and enjoy Debussy’s ravishing textures and oh-so-subtle sonorities. Simone Young led a fine performance. Her incisive beat ensured that the essential rhythmic acuity was present in the music but this did not by any means preclude sensitive shaping. The playing was colourful and at times vibrant and in the score’s louder, more vibrant passages Ms Young conducted with fine sweep. Throughout she evidenced fine attention to detail. I can’t recall the last time I experienced this work in a live performance rather than on disc or radio but I admired and enjoyed the results that Simone Young obtained. What a pity, then, that when so much sensitivity was being shown by the players the legion of coughers in the audience did their best to destroy the atmosphere. I’m afraid that Symphony Hall is regularly home to the most bronchial audience I know; almost every quiet passage of music is accompanied by inconsiderate coughing. The management of the hall seem to have cracked the problem of errant mobile phones with a broadcast announcement just before every concert starts. I wish they’d now attempt to tackle the problem of inconsiderate coughing; it’s well overdue.
It was an intelligent piece of programme planning to follow Jeux with the concert suite from another Diaghilev ballet, The Firebird, and in his very good programme note about Jeux Michael Downes traced the relationship between the two composers in 1913. The CBSO is no stranger to this score – they’ve recorded the complete ballet with Andris Nelsons – and, astutely guided by Simone Young, they gave a fine account of the suite. I thought Ms Young’s tempo for the Introduction was, perhaps, just a little on the steady side. There was a good sense of suspense and darkness but I would have liked the music to move forward just a little more. However, there was ample vitality for the music of the Firebird’s dance. There were several excellent solos to relish in the ‘Ronde des princesses’; the principal oboe, cello, bassoon and clarinet all made sensitive contributions. Unfortunately, the delicate ending was marred by the Bronchial Brigade. The thunderclap arrival of King Kastchei silenced – or drowned – the coughers. Simone Young drove the music along most excitingly, almost dancing on the podium at times; this was a tremendous performance. After that the ‘Berceuse’ was beautifully weighted; the bassoon solo was seductively voiced. As far as I was concerned the peak of the evening came with the transition from this movement to the ‘Final’. The softly shimmering CBSO strings made this a magical moment. My heart was in my mouth, fully expecting a cough to break the spell but mercifully this superfine playing was treated with the respect it deserved. The Rimsky-like colour of the last movement was splendidly delivered, bringing an enticing programme to a fittingly grand conclusion.
Simone Young has now made a deep impression on Birmingham in two very different types of programme. There seems to be a good chemistry between her and the CBSO and I hope she’ll be invited back by the orchestra soon and regularly.