Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 16 May 2023.  4****, David Gray & Paul Gray

Arvo Pärt – Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten * RachmaninovPiano Concerto No 3 in D minor, Op 30 * DvořákSymphony No 7 in D minor, Op 70

Estonia is a nation with a turbulent past and a pivotal location: once part of the Russian and Swedish Empires, its history looks to the East and to Scandinavia.  Estonia is the most southerly of the three Baltic Republics and lies adjacent to Central Europe.  The programme for this concert acknowledged all of these linkages but started at home with music by its own Arvo Pärt.

Pärt never met Benjamin Britten before his death but commented that he found the other composer’s music “unusually pure”.  His Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten reflects this understanding of Britten’s music while expressing a deep sense of loss.  It is at once calm and passionate, structured yet suggestive of something beyond itself. 

Conductor, Olari Elts gave a measured and evocative reading of the piece – always carefully held in check, but still reaching and yearning.  The orchestra’s strings played with feeling and warmth beneath a glossy surface.  With some exquisite pianissimos, the Estonian’s exploited the very specific acoustics of Symphony Hall, to reach out to every corner of the space.

Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is reputed to be one of the most technically demanding concertos for the pianist in the repertoire.  Stand-in pianist Barry Douglas rose to the challenges of this work magnificently. His playing was powerful, precise and highly expressive.  At the start of the second movement, he guided the audience through the twisting, chromatic and lavishly embellished melodic world of the piece with a wonderful sense of line and purpose. 

The performance was, however, slightly less than the sum of its parts.  Soloist and orchestra did not meld completely.  Often, in the first two movements, the feeling of a conversation – of ideas; of melodic & motivic material – being passed around between soloist and orchestra, was a little lacking.  The orchestra seemed to be holding back at times for the sake of balance when, in reality, the piano needed no such accommodation.  This occasionally resulted in a somewhat muddy texture, and perhaps a slightly uncertain focus and loss of detail.  The Finale, however, shone and brought the work to a glittering conclusion.

Barry Douglas then gave in to the audience’s rapturous demands for an encore and provided a lovely arrangement of the Montagues & Capulets Dance from Prokofiev’s Ballet Romeo and Juliet. Again, exquisite playing from Douglas.

The orchestra was in much more certain form for Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.  This was an assured performance, full of colour.  A bold and rich orchestral sound caught the dramatic mood of the piece but not at the expense of textural detail. The horns delivered some majestic moments.  Elts shaped the work intelligently to create a satisfying, complete and passionate interpretation.

Sibelius’ Death of Melisande played as an encore, again with some exquisite string pianissimos, brought the evening to a close.  Here one felt the orchestra was not just playing their instruments but playing the Hall.  A very fine and moving conclusion.

Estonian National Symphony Orchestra * Olari Elts – Conductor * Barry Douglas – Piano

David Gray & Paul Gray are Reviewers for Birmingham, West Midlands and the Three Choirs Festival. If you would like David & Paul to come review for you, drop us a line at

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