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S & H Concert Review

Bernstein, Handel, Vaughan Williams: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo conductor Jane Irwin mezzo-soprano, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 5th December 2001 (CT)

This imaginative and intriguing programme, centred around three very different responses to themes from the Old Testament, gave an all too rare opportunity to hear Vaughan Williamsís masterful ballet Job, in the wake of an impressive performance of the same composerís Fourth Symphony earlier in the CBSO season. Coupled with the inclusion of Bernsteinís early First Symphony this was a programme that also underlines Oramoís commitment, following in the illustrious footsteps of Simon Rattle, to stimulating repertoire for his Symphony Hall audiences.

As it turned out, it was the Bernstein that proved to be the highlight of the evening, a performance of searing passion and pathos that seemed to bring out the best in both the strings and brass particularly. The rich, dark hued sound of the strings in the opening movement, Prophecy-Largamente, was marvellous (for sheer depth of tone I canít think of a British orchestra that can beat them) and the central fortissimo statement of the main theme, with its echoes of Roy Harris, foreboding yet truly magisterial. The closing bars of this movement were captured with a sense of magic that I cannot imagine being more finely realised. At first the Vivace con brio scherzo, Profanation, seemed to lack a degree of rhythmic definition but any such concerns were soon dispelled as Oramo whipped the orchestra up into a state of hair-raising exhilaration. The Coplandesque, momentum gathering Latin American rhythms had most of the audience gasping for breath! The influence of Copland is once again in evidence in the more expansive phrases of the final Lamentation-Lento, particularly in the brass writing. Jane Irwin delivered the vocal line with a feeling of touching simplicity that felt just right for the plaintive sadness of Bernsteinís touching inspiration. The clear sense of satisfaction in the hall at the conclusion of the work spoke volumes for this performance.

In the three Handel arias that followed, Jane Irwin again displayed a wonderfully relaxed, effortless style with a voice rich in all registers and immaculately clear diction. The delicate and finely balanced string and continuo accompaniment provided by Oramo and his players was achieved with aplomb, the vigour of the final aria from Jephtha coming off particularly well.

I well recall the shattering power and interpretative strength of Oramoís performance of Vaughan Williamsís Fourth Symphony making a major impression on me back in February. As a result my expectations were high for this long awaited performance of Job, partly because it was also a first opportunity to hear the new Symphony Hall organ. The opening set the pastoral scene beautifully, with atmospheric, delicately balanced sounds from the strings and woodwind and a gentle grace to the courtly dance of Jobís children. The initial entry of Satan, marked by pianissimo pizzicato strings and bassoons, had real menace yet later in Scene Two I could not help but feel that the brass, in their mocking Gloria as Satan kneels before Godís throne, lacked the necessary feeling of grotesque scorn. In Scene Three the Minuet of Jobís sons and daughters-in- law showed a natural shape in the phrasing and the sound blossomed through VWís richly expansive orchestration but doubts continued to surface as the performance failed to invoke the sheer terror of the subject matter. At last this doubt seemed to dispel in Scene Four where Jobís visions of plague, pestilence, famine and battle had a maniacal reality about them that at once impressed and terrified. Capturing the feeling of weedling hypocrisy in the saxophone solo at the opening of Scene Six (a real masterstroke of orchestration) often seems to elude players and whilst nicely played the solo here was just that too nice. Sadly, the vision of Satan on Godís throne at the end of this scene, in many ways the shattering climactic fulcrum of the work, also failed as the result of a tempo that simply did not allow the apocalyptic force of the music to emerge fully and a strangely anaemic sound from the organ, probably in itself, the disappointment of the evening. Jacqueline Hartleyís sublimely melting, rhapsodic violin solo in Scene Seven representing Elihuís Dance of Youth and Beauty was played with memorable tenderness although a surprisingly brisk choice of tempo in the ensuing Pavane meant that the dance lost its feeling of courtly grace. Fortunately the Galliard in Scene Eight did not suffer the same fate and the transition into the concluding scene was finely handled, as was the closing reprise of the opening material as Job gazes over his cornfields blessing his wife and daughters.

In conclusion a concert that was possibly as memorable for the inconsistencies in Job as it was for the fine first half performance of Bernsteinís "Jeremiah" although it is certainly to be hoped that Oramo and his orchestra continue to adopt the same spirit of programming in their forthcoming 2002 season.

Christopher Thomas.



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