Richly Deserved Ovation for Renaud Capuçon’s Harold in Italy 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Berlioz, Stravinsky, Ravel: Renaud Capuçon (viola), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Alain Altinoglu (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 22.10.2014 (RD)

Rossini: Overture: An Italian Girl in Algiers
Berlioz: Harold in Italy
Stravinsky: Apollo
Ravel: Daphnis and Chloe – Suite No. 2

A concert of hefty French repertoire, Berlioz and Ravel, such as one might have encountered at one of the CBSO’s earlier high points under its former music director Louis Frémaux, might have seemed substantial enough. To have each prefixed by an extra, bonus work, both by a composer intimately connected with Paris – Rossini’s Overture The Italian Girl in Algiers and Stravinsky’s Apollon, made for riches indeed in this concert conducted by a versatile young Parisian-born conductor, Alain Altinoglu.

Altinoglu is of Armenian descent, by way of Istanbul (the name is Turkish), and his manner with an orchestra inspires total confidence. If this was most patently obvious in the Stravinsky, a work for strings only, you could sense it throughout.

Perhaps it impacted  least in the Rossini, a work to which the CBSO strings, brass and woodwind brought plenty of swashbuckle – and what composer is more swashbuckling than Rossini?. The slight weakness – arguably – lay in the rather strident, not especially personable sound the post-Oramo CBSO strings brought to this piece. There was plenty of roar, not a lot of délicatesse; and when you think of Rossini, as in for instance William Tell, there is often, or should be, quite a lot of subtlety in between the romps.

The two outstanding things were the oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons) over pizzicato strings, heard early on and exquisitely reprised part-way through; and the astonishingly skilled build up Altinoglu and the orchestra achieved latterly, unanimously, every section on the ball, a bit like the Grand Old Duke of York marching his men up to the top of the hill and back again. The sense of anticipation, rapt tension and excitement was quite thrilling: it could scarcely have been bettered.

On, then, to the Berlioz –  my main reason for being there. If any work surpasses even Romeo and Juliet for sensitivity, beauty and pathos (would we had got his planned King Lear!), it’s surely his Byron symphony, Harold in Italy. Altinoglu didn’t quite rein in the players sufficiently – they were still on the North African stomp – to produce the enchanting mystique the work’s opening needs; the crescendo should surely not occur till the brass chords descend. Indeed, even the ensuing Clerics’ March needed a subtler, far more subliminal start to make full impact;  but if inappropriately edgy at the outset, the CBSO soon got to grips with itself and gave a finely sensitive, supportive performance.

Whom were they supporting? A ravishing young French viola player, Renaud Capuçon, whose whole demeanour as well as his glorious playing bespoke the hapless, childlike hero, zealous and optimistic but gradually overwhelmed by alien experiences and doomed to perish in a welter of dervish-like dances that hark back to the Symphonie Fantastique of just a few seasons earlier.      

He’s helped in by the most glorious orchestration – the superb CBSO cellos and basses led by Eduardo Vassallo and John Tattersdill, with Vahan Khourdoian, formerly the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester’s lead bassoonist, folding on over them: all lower instruments, the sought-after mystery at last achieved, heralding an orchestral transition to the major and the solo entry in the minor.

One thing that was so fabulous about Capuçon’s playing was how intimate, how like human conversation, it sounded. He was playing with the echo chamber doors above him ideally reduced (by Altinoglu?) to a minimum – not closed, which brought an astonishing chamber feel to his playing. When he dropped to triple and then even quadruple piano (yet such being thr wonders of Symphony Hall’s design, could doubtless be heard like a dropped pin in the back top rows), the atmosphere, and the skill of the playing, was redoubled. Harold plays his tune and then he and the orchestra wrest it upside down and inside out, each variant with a different effect (Tchaikovsly learned from all this): it became a beautiful instance of interplay. The viola has its chirpy moments even here, and even more so later on. Altinoglu and the band brought off yet another of their perfected long crescendos, not without ostinato effects that gave this the feel of a perpetuo moto: not quite a Ravel’s Boléro, but with some of that blustering spirit.

The later movements, too, revealed why Capuçon received a spectacular ovation with the Symphony Hall audience. Here the fabulous flute had exactly the right kind of mystery over (or under) the viola’s arpeggio-ing, which the soloist kept so beautifully quiet. Miracles, too, from the descanting flute department over the viola’s return in the section that followed the pilgrims. There were nicely delicate brass touches too to relish in the second movement, and the pilgrims’ exit, left to Harold to mimic with his arpeggios resolving the intermittently  elusive key in alt, felt just wonderful. Two successful middle movements, in fact.

Designed as a rip-roaring Hollywood Finale, the last movement thrilled with its brigandish assaults, though even here Berlioz manages to take the viola down to pianissimo, as the orchestra shouts out cackling laughs straight out of Weber in the brass. The strings excelled themselves in this finale – as stylish in their spirited braggadocio as previously rocky at the start. With Laurence Jackson, soon afterwards to be heard as solo, at the helm, they really can achieve rich and wonderful effects. Even when battling the trombones’ threats, the strings remained stylish – taking Harold’s side, perhaps. But one of the loveliest moments is when Harold, feeling isolated, virtually duets with himself. Double-stopping was rarely so touching, or so narrative-enhancing. It’s a lonely end, even amid the hubbub.

Everything was building towards Daphnis and Chloe – not the whole work, so no sweeping choruses and shattering, choir-upholding sequences. But this was Suite No 2, and it’s the sort of repertoire Altinoglu revels in, as Rattle did here before him. Again Marie-Christine Zupancic’s flute solo – she is a fine successor to the CBSO’s great, now veteran Colin Lilley – was crucial in the scenes for Chloe. This was the work Ravel was supposed to write for Diaghilev in 1910 (the Firebird took its place; and it only hit the stage in between the next two Stravinsky ballets, reaching its audience in 1912). The CBSO woodwind have some ravishing passages, some of them fused with strings, and here, in repertoire they have recorded, the entire orchestra responded to Altinoglu’s sympathetic, sensitive lead. Daphnis is one of the most gentle of Greek myths, one of those one terms bucolic. The rural feel has more than an echo of Berlioz about it; and so too does the unbuttoned finale, which Fokine whipped up into a dramatic whirl, well up to Berlioz’s Harold and Symphonie Fantastique.

On the myth front, I was looking forward to the Stravinsky, too: long known as Apollon Musagète (French and Greek for ‘Apollo, leader of the Muses’), although Stravinsky reverted to the simpler Apollo, this music is inspired by the Franco-Italian baroque suite (think too of Pulcinella, although the while effect is lighter; or later, of The Rake’s Progress). The playing of the CBSO strings simply swept me away here. Alain Altinoglu had a lovely, intimate way of nursing, coaxing them, leaning in, but ever so lightly, to bring out some tiny detail worth sharing.

The obvious connection, a direct one, one feels, is with Britten: those early sections from the late 1920s seem to be a direct foundation for Les Illuminatons, with Jackson’s incredibly lucid solo acquiring almost the stature of the Bach Chaconne. Fabulous.  I don’t always look forward to hearing string orchestras. This one gave me nothing but excitement and variety, finesse and lovely surprises. Witness their veering across, amid the long flow, almost to jazz; Vassallo’s superbly delivered, teasing cello solo amid middle movements that admit Gigue and much cavorting; or a quite beautifully played Allegretto.

It’s strange how a couple of these movements midway should remind one – no connection, obviously – how Elgar looked to and used baroque models here and there: not just the Handel Overture, which is an arrangement, but the late Nursery Suite, or the Introduction and Allegro.

I especially liked the brave, hauled-back pace Altinoglu adopted for the late slow movement – an Adagio indeed, and that is the way he took it, but judging it perfectly. And when in that same preceding Allegretto he reined in the players for a series of unexpected pull ups – pauses, as it were, before the Muse (here Terpsichore) dances away like a recalcitrant Nymph: here was utter enchantment indeed. After all this, what could that other myth, Daphnis, offer us but the most wondrous of envois?

My only regret: that I wasn’t able to catch the taster that preceded this concert. The Orchestra of Birmingham Conservatoire, under the CBSO’s Associate Conductor Michael Seal, played Sir Granville Bantock’s Pagan Symphony. How splendid that the CBSO should offer such an important slot to these young players. And how admirable that they should bring such important, long-neglected repertoire to the dais! It’s a splendid work by a close Elgar contemporary – indeed, Elgar’s successor at the newly fledged Conservtoire and a fine, forward-looking adminsitrator as well as composer. Happy are those who heard it.


Roderic Dunnett


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