Simon Rattle may no longer be in charge of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but his replacement Sakari Oramo has ensured his hard work in raising the orchestra’s profile has not been in vain. They remain one of the world’s top ensembles, and a programme examining great orchestrators of the 20th (and 21st) centuries left them free to show off their wares.
Fairy tales were once again given great prominence, with French composers in the first half, Russian the second. Musorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, back in its Ravelian guise after last year’s multi-arranger showing from Leonard Slatkin, was the perfect vehicle for them. A Gnomus of tense, dramatic excitement which ended like a door being slammed shut was followed by a moving alto saxophone solo in The Old Castle.
The excited chatter of the stumbling unhatched chicks made the audience smile, the shrill, stammering trumpet of Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle put them on edge. All were executed with verve by the orchestra, who worked Baba Yaga into a demonic frenzy before ending with the crowd-pleasing splendour of the Great Gate of Kiev.
To single out the Musorgsky, however, would belittle what went before. A glittering performance of Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye threatened to be snuffed out by a barrage of coughing in the quiet moments, but Oramo led his players through a polished and brightly lit performance. A light Scherzo Fantastique opened the second half, Stravinsky’s woodwind textures forming an exotic palate, the bass ends of the orchestra used sparingly.
The real find, though, was in the London premiere of Henri Dutilleux’s song cycle Correspondences, a captivating setting of letters from figures as varied as Van Gogh, the Russian author and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Indian author Prithwindra Mukherjee. Dutilleux drew unexpected delights with his orchestration, whether in the unusual choice of accordion in Solzhenitsyn’s letter to Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya or the pairing of soft double bass pizzicato and timpani, harnessing a latent power in the opening letter.
Soprano Barbara Hannigan succeeded where so many before have failed, filling the huge acoustic with sound when needed, but displaying a range of colour the composer no doubt cherished. And what a note she reached at the end, straining for the roof itself! When the eighty-nine year old appeared on stage to rapturous applause, it was a genuinely moving moment, and served to reaffirm his status as one of the most important composers of his day.