A Colourful and Entertaining Programme from Nicholas Collon and the CBSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Stravinsky: Leonard Elschenbroich (cello), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Nicholas Collon (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 3.3.2016 (JQ)

Tchaikovsky –  Hamlet, Overture-Fantasy, Op. 67
Saint-Saëns – Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33
Berlioz  – Scène d’amour from Roméo et Juliette
Stravinsky – The Firebird – Suite (1945)

In this Thursday afternoon concert, given to a very full house, the CBSO were conducted by the young British conductor, Nicholas Collon. The works by Tchaikovsky and Berlioz fitted in neatly with the orchestra’s “Our Shakespeare” theme which is running through the present season.

Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet is not heard as often as it should be. It lacks a big, sweeping tune such as one finds in Romeo and Juliet and it’s not as wild and passionate as Francesca da Rimini but it’s still a fine piece. Collon led a very successful performance, establishing a sense of foreboding in the opening pages and then bringing out all the dramatic elements as the music unfolded. There was a lovely oboe solo (Rainer Gibbons) portraying Ophelia and, indeed, in that section the rest of the woodwind were just as fine. I was impressed with Collon’s handling of the score though perhaps just a little more ‘give’ in the piece’s lyrical passages would have been welcome. He obtained excellent, keenly responsive playing from the CBSO. In the brief coda Tchaikovsky’s tragic ending was successfully done, not least because Collon didn’t overdo the emotion; an element of patrician restraint was most appropriate.

The young German cellist, Leonard Elschenbroich joined the orchestra for the Saint-Saëns concerto. It was written in 1872 for the Belgian cellist, Auguste Tolbecque who must have liked the work for I learned from Richard Bratby’s programme note that he was still playing the concerto in public in 1910 at the age of 80. And why would he not have liked the piece? It’s relatively short – about 20 minutes in this performance – but it gives the soloist plenty of opportunities to shine both in virtuoso writing and in lyrical stretches. The three movements play without a break.

It seemed to me that Elschenbroich was very well suited to the concerto. Needless to say, he had the necessary technique to despatch the virtuoso passages with seeming ease. Moreover, the consistently burnished and lovely tone that he obtained from his 1693 Goffriller instrument meant that the many lyrical passages were a delight. Indeed, his tone compelled attention throughout the performance. I especially liked the central Menuet movement. Here the orchestral strings displayed sensitive courtliness in playing the minuet material at the start – and later their woodwind colleagues were equally felicitous. In the meantime Elschenbroich made his countermelodies sing in a most attractive way. The vivacious finale was despatched with high spirits by soloist and orchestra. This was a most enjoyable account of a thoroughly engaging work.

Elschenbroich played a short encore which could hardly have been more different. As he didn’t trouble to announce it I was unable to identify it but I later learned it was by Witold Lutosławski. It was evident from the applause that most of the audience responded to the piece with more enthusiasm than I could muster.

After the interval there was more French music, this time by Berlioz. The Scène d’amour from Roméo et Juliette is a wonderful evocation of a lovers’ tryst in a moonlight garden and it’s one of my favourite pieces by a composer whose music I love. The sultry nocturnal opening promised much, the strings quiet and velvety, the woodwinds delicate. Collon and his players unfolded the music with great finesse and although there was much beautiful playing the impulsive moments of passion came across equally well. In this piece there are some wonderful, long melodies, all very typical of the composer, and these were marvellously voiced by the orchestra.

To conclude Collon offered Stravinsky’s 1945 suite from his ballet The Firebird. For this suite Stravinsky reined in some of the opulent orchestration that he deployed in the original 1910 ballet. Nonetheless the score teems with colour and detail and arguably, whether in its original or “slimmed down” form The Firebird is the work in which Stravinsky’s debt to Rimsky-Korsakov is most evident. The CBSO has played The Firebird quite a lot, not least under each of its last three Music Directors, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that they gave a fine performance here under Collon’s highly effective leadership.

The dark, mysterious opening was impressive after which there was light and airy playing to relish in the ‘Dance of the Firebird’. This light, fast music was dexterously done. The ‘Ronde des princesses’, ushered in by a tender solo oboe, offered opportunities for sensitive playing by a number of principal players and without exception these solos were delightfully done, all against a beguiling accompaniment from the rest of the CBSO. King Kastcheï shattered the magical mood with his infernal dance, which was appropriately menacing and furious. Calm was restored in the ‘Berceuse’ – we were lulled by a lovely bassoon solo. Collon and the players effected a supremely delicate transition to the ‘Final’ though, sadly, several of the more bronchial members of the audience seized this golden opportunity to add the coughs which Stravinsky carelessly omitted from his scoring at this point. Elspeth Dutch’s golden horn solo was cushioned on a gossamer-light bed of string sound. Then Collon whipped up the closing pages most excitingly to bring a fine performance to a sonorous end.

This was a most enjoyable concert of colourful and entertaining music. The CBSO were on prime form and Nicholas Collon demonstrated why his career is already attracting much attention. I look forward to heanirg him in the performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony at the end of March.

This programme will be repeated in Symphony Hall on Saturday March 5 at 19.30. On that occasion the Saint-Saëns concerto will be replaced by Poulenc’s splendid Gloria in which Sophie Bevan (soprano) and the CBSO Chorus will take part.

John Quinn

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