Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at the Elgar Hall, University of Birmingham

Themed concerts are ten-a-penny. Much rarer are ones which stimulate the imagination and confound lazy preconceptions with music that's mutually illuminating. The BPO's War and Peace concert was one such. Everything was played with conviction, flair and dedication, creating a truly memorable afternoon. Superficially Berg's ThreeFragments from his opera Wozzeck and Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony inhabit widely separated music worlds: Viennese atonal expressionism versus English pastoralism. Only superficially: actually a skein of cultural and historical threads connect these works which were forged in the fire-storm of World War I, in which both composers served.

Michael Lloyd's alert conducting, and players who rose to every technical challenge – horns, first trumpet and brass section take a bow – ensured that, confounding those lazy expectations, so much tender lyricism emerged from Berg's harrowing score while VW's anything-but-cosy pastoralism was shadow-tinged and bleak. The technical difficulties in Berg are obvious but the symphony has its pitfalls too. Four slowish movements can easily sag or become indistinguishable but Lloyd and the BPO ensured they were individualized.

Natasha Day's radiant soprano was crucial in both works: a passionate, yearning Marie seduced by the pugnacious macho posturing of Berg's deliberately hollow martial music and as the wonderfully soothing, wordless other-worldly off-stage voice providing a final benediction at the symphony's end. Both works were prefaced by a movement from Holst's Planets Suite; Lloyd giving Mars a slow but inexorable tread – the hall's bright acoustic sharpening its cutting edge – and then the balm of Venus The Bringer of Peace.

-- Norman Stinchcombe

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