Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 19 April 2023. 5*****. David Gray & Paul Gray

Rossini – The Thieving Magpie Overture * Mozart – Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola * Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)

A concerto conducted from the instrument by a soloist always yields a fresh perspective.  The central work of this concert, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin & Viola was skilfully shaped and guided, as was the rest of the concert, by violin soloist Julian Rachlin

Soloists – a husband and wife affair – and orchestra delivered an intimate, conversational reading, full of character, elegantly dappled with light and shade.  The solo lines flowed effortlessly between Rachlin and viola soloist Sarah McElvary.  Dovetailing with the band was always seamless.  The fact that the soloists often seemed to get carried away and play on with their respective orchestral parts is an indication of how immersed they were in the work as a whole. 

The opening passage of the slow movement – where the solo lines soar expansively out of the orchestral texture – was spine-tingling.  McElvary handled her extended melismatic ornamentation like a legendary operatic coloratura diva, with a subtle delicacy while never losing sight of the thrust of the melodic line. 

The programme opened with Rossini’s ebullient The Thieving Magpie Overture.  Legend has it that, before the first performance, the conductor had to lock the composer in a room to force him to write the Overture.  It is clear that Rossini must have seen the funny side of the situation, for it is surely the most slyly humorous of his compositions.

Rachlin brought out all the Overture’s inherent hilarity.  However, there were some balance issues.  The percussion section occasionally tore through the texture a bit too enthusiastically.  The trombone passage work towards the end got a little lost, which was a shame; there is nothing quite like a trombone going crazy in Rossini. Maybe there needed to be two of them?!

The concert concluded with a detailed and revelatory performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral SymphonyRachlin’s reading shone a forensic torch on details of phrasing and texture, but also threw a bright spotlight across the work’s broader architecture; particularly in the first movement, where – what might be the most understated and discrete development sections in the history of the symphony – was exquisitely articulated. 

Soloists were excellent throughout.  The horn section played with brash confidence, and rumbunctious character during the exposition and recapitulation – just what the doctor ordered – and the woodwind birdsong in the second movement was beautifully coordinated.

The storm scene shook the hall, helped by incisive brass and assertive, (un-)pedalled timpani playing.  Eventually the clouds abated, and summer sun flooded the hall.  The CBSO strings swelled with their customary richness and warmth to bring the concert to an uplifting end. A most delightful afternoon at Birmingham’s iconic Symphony Hall.

Julian Rachlin – Conductor/Violin * Sarah McElvary – Viola * City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

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