CBSO - Mirga and Symphony Hall by Christopher Morley

Among the many joys of Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla's arrival in Birmingham has been her proud programming of music from her Lithuanian homeland. Recently we enjoyed the UK premiere of Ciurlionis' In the Forest at the Gala Opening of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and on Thursday she and the CBSO gave us the UK premiere of La Barca, by Onute Narbutaite.
Interestingly, both these works are rooted in nature, and La Barca indeed reflects something of the flecky impressionism of Debussy's La Mer which has figured so prominently with the CBSO in recent days. High tinklings shimmer over bass swells, a timpani cadenza identifies a tonal centre, and throughout this fascinating piece a gorgeous melody is struggling to emerge from the lower strings.
This was a well-prepared account of a work whose large orchestra is handled by the composer confidently and imaginatively, its textures constantly alive. Narbutaite also contributed a thoughtful, unpretentious (unlike so many other contemporary composers) programme-note. What a pity she wasn't present to receive our plaudits.
There followed the most refreshing reading of Elgar's (dare I say it, overplayed?) Cello Concerto that I've heard in ages, soloist Johannes Moser eschewing any railing self-pity, choosing instead to recreate this as the gentle, resigned acceptance of an old man, delivered with a spry lightness of touch and, in the scherzo, with more than a memory of gleeful naughtiness.
This enthralling interpretation threw all the emotional weight onto the concluding pages, nostalgia at last, a la Dvorak Concerto, dewing the eyes. Empathetic collaborators under Mirga, the CBSO players applauded generously (not least cello principal Eduardo Vassallo, himself a fine exponent of the work), and Moser won even my encore-hating heart with the humour and clarity with which he announced his Bach savoury.
It comes to something when a Mahler symphony comes as a footnote. Mirga's interpretation of the First quite rightly tended towards it as a symphonic poem. Symphony Hall lent its grandeur to the offstage brass effects, horns were understatedly magnificent, making their eventual standing triumphalism particularly effective,  tutti double-basses, as now seems to be fashionable, made the Frere Jacques solo spooky rather than grisly -- but everything seemed honed on the side of smoothness.
The piquant kletzmer-style interlude in that same Frere Jacques slow movement had the bass drum/cymbal accompaniments anodysed to virtual inaudibility, and the dissonances which should sear at the beginning of the finale's inferno scarcely registered.

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