Birds of Paradise: The Lark Ascending, CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham 23 November 2022, 3*** David Gray

Tarrodi – Birds of Paradise
Beethoven – Symphony No. 6, ‘Pastoral’, Mvt. 2
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Acending
Sibelius – Swanwhite: Incidental Music/Kuolma: Scenes with Cranes/Lemminkainen Suite: Swan of Tuonela
Rautavaara – Cantus Artcicus: Concerto for Birds and Orchestra

A concert consisting of music about birds is an intriguing idea. Birds have inspired so much music through their song, evocative association with landscapes and places, and their exhilarating ability to do that of which we can only dream– fly.

The opening item of the evening Andrea Tarrodi’s piece for strings, ‘Birds of Paradise’ focused on exotic location and song. Shimmering planes of sonic textures undulate through slow harmonic shifts during an atmospheric opening section. The call of the birds themselves, a few at first, and then growing through the orchestra to a riotous cacophony, were mimicked by clever instrumental effects, skilfully handled by the players. This was a fascinating start to the concert.

The Second Scene of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, The Pastoral seemed odd as a standalone piece, and it was a rather last-minute change in the programming due to a change of conductor due to illness. In this measured reading it felt very much like what it is: the calm before the calm before the storm. Still, the wind got their chance to do the parody bird calls, and they did them very well.

The first half concluded with violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen fronting the orchestra in Vaughan Williams’s iconic The Lark Ascending. Poised and serene playing from the soloist at the start of the piece unfurled with unexpected passion to depict the lark’s ecstatic flight. This was a beautifully shaped interpretation.

After so much bucolic pastoralism I developed an odd craving for a ploughman’s and a pint of scrumpy. Concert Hall bars being what they are, I had to make do with a large glass of pinot and a bag of cheese and onion to fortify myself for the smorgasbord of Scandinavian savouries comprising the second half.

Music written for plays – but then taken out of a theatrical context and transported to the concert hall – can often fail to deliver on dramatic promise. A selection of Sibelius’ incidental music proved to be a case in point. A predominant mood of wistful melancholy was accentuated by some rather muddy playing.

Another Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara used recordings of bird song as the starting point of his ‘Concerto for Birds and Orchestra’. Composed in 1972, it is a kind of avian African Sanctus where recorded sounds duet with live music. This was a thoughtful piece. In the final movement a stirring melody built though the orchestra to a thrilling climax which totally captured the majesty of swans in flight. A suitably air-born conclusion to a concert that, despite its subject matter, often failed to take wing itself.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Conductor – Bertie Baigent

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