CBSO’s Magic of Vienna Struggles to Weave a Spell

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Magic of Vienna: Kate Royal (soprano) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Duncan Ward (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 4:1:2015 (GR).

With a selection of music principally in keeping with the traditional VPO’s New Year Concert in Vienna, the CBSO programme promised to deliver a fayre that would allow the audience to ‘raise a glass of musical bubbly with us right here in Birmingham.’  Unfortunately I felt the champagne offered at Symphony Hall on 4th Jan up to the interval was a trifle flat; however, the second half of the afternoon’s entertainment had much more of a fizz about it. The stage displayed a rather tired impression of what was the tenth day of Christmas with two small decorated trees at the sides and a single row of fairy lights along the front of the choir-stalls. I thought there might have been a more overt display of the festivities although the male CBSO players were resplendent in their white jackets. Duncan Ward worked hard with his band to impart a joie de vivre into the well-filled auditorium, but it was an uphill struggle; this may have been partly due to the absence of many familiar CBSO faces that generally lead their respective orchestral sections.

 The Overture to The Gypsy Baron from the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II opened the show, and Ward immediately conveyed a confident manner along with well-defined hand and baton signals, taking the tricky changes of tempo in his stride. The young conductor was also our compere, a role in which he appeared equally at ease (although maybe a little too relaxed at times) leading us into the second number from Josef Strauss, the Waltz from the Music of the Spheres. Any light-heartedness created by the two Strauss brothers was dashed by Fiordiligi’s Come scoglio from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. While soprano Kate Royal handled the coloratura and upper register of the aria adequately, there was little evidence of her character being able to immoto resta (stand immobile) – much more a delicate Pamina than a forceful Fiordiligi. The third brother in the Strauss dynasty provided the next item, Eduard’s Helen Quadrille, memorable for its reference to the closing chorus to Act I of Offenbach’s La belle Hélène as Ménélas is bundled off to Crete. Another move away from Vienna came with the Pizzicati from Delibes’ ballet Sylvia, a test for the timing of the strings and under the leadership of Thelma Handy they passed with honours. Two more arias from Royal followed: Porgi amor from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Les filles de Cadix by Delibes. Again I was not overly enamoured by their rendition: the inner turmoil of the Countess failed to come across, while despite excellent support from the percussion section, any carefree Spanish flamboyance was absent from the Chanson espagnole excerpt.  A couple more Johann Strauss II dances closed the first half: the polka Long live the Magyars and the waltz Artist’s Life.

 The inevitable inclusion of the Overture to Die Fledermaus began the second half; noteworthy for the contribution of the woodwind section, the whole failed to pack a serious punch (a lack of numbers perhaps?). Royal’s next offering was a Strauss of a different persuasion, Richard’s Morgen, one his best–loved songs. Ward and the CBSO delivered a mesmeric introduction, a mood that Royal latched onto and together they produced the best item of the whole afternoon – a pure, shimmering and beautiful performance. The effect was infectious and it reflected in Ward’s increased animation, his knees bending in time to the rhythm of the subsequent Emperor Waltz by the Waltz King; there was a celebratory swing to the music, catching the mood of its 1889 premiere when Berlin greeted the visit of the Austrian Kaiser Franz-Josef; there was particularly good work from the horns and an impressive closing drum roll. Ward introduced Eduard Strauss’ Bahn Frei (Track Free) Polka with a railway experience of his own, and possibly added a few more whistles into the score, much to the audience’s approval. The official programme closed with two more Johann Strauss II favourites, a galloping Tritsch-Tratsch Polka taken at a helter-skelter pace and a flowingly majestic Blue Danube. The concert had just about been pulled around.

 Geoff Read

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