The promoting theme of Alpesh Chauhan’s latest venture with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was billed as “Italian Moments”. However, the first half of the concert was decidedly Russian with works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, the latter piece performed by a Siberian-born soloist. Indeed, the only tenuous link to Italy in the opening work, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, was in the imagination of a certain English dramatist who chose to lay our scene in fair Verona. As for moments, there were certainly plenty of them, Italian or not, ranging from uncertain to sublime.

Alpesh Chauhan
© Patrick Allen |

The evening began with a rather lacklustre performance, by the CBSO’s usually high standards, of Tchaikovsky’s overture. It is a piece with which we are perhaps overfamiliar. Its popularity in concerts and performances mean we come to it with preconceived ideas. It was abundantly clear that Chauhan had strong convictions about how it should be performed, giving the opening bars bold detached phrasing and later contrasting this with the sweeping romance of the strings and the pulsating punctuation of the percussive sections. Unfortunately, it wasn’t entirely certain that the orchestra were at one with him. There were some hesitant entries and insecurities in performance, particularly in the quieter passages, that left me unconvinced. It didn’t seem to gel well. The CBSO are usually much tighter, more confident and unified than they were in this overture. Nonetheless, it is a work that is popular for a reason, and the beauty of the music still came through, particularly in the romantic theme.

Things got better for Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini as Pavel Kolesnikov walked up to the Steinway in his unassuming manner. When he played at Symphony Hall earlier this year, he did so as a stand in for the headline artist. He impressed so much that this time he was back as featured soloist in his own billing. Last time there were no expectations, so would he crack under the pressure before a nearly full hall? Not a chance. He is the complete package of technique, talent and touch coupled with a particularly well-developed discipline of listening attentively to the orchestra. This meant that he was able to match his phrasing and dynamics perfectly, blending in without being lost, being prominent with being overbearing, varying his expression in the moment. He was secure in his performance and I began to feel that the CBSO were slowly beginning to regain their edge too. This was undoubtedly another success for Kolesnikov at Symphony Hall. I still had the feeling, however, that the CBSO were not firing on all cylinders, but that was all to change in the second half. 

Returning from the interval the CBSO immediately sounded more confident. The first of Puccini’s intermezzi was fully rounded and bold and a statement of intent from Chauhan. He, too, looked more settled on the podium. Now we were having some real Italian moments with all the expected passion and romance. Of the two intermezzi, the first from Madam Butterfly and the other from Manon Lescaut, the more memorable for me was from Manon, introduced by lusciously rich cello tones dripping from the fingers of Eduardo Vassallo. Chauhan balanced the orchestra perfectly, the wonderful melodies swelling to stirring timpani crescendo and then receding gracefully.

But Chauhan and the CBSO were saving the best until last. Respighi’s Feste Romane is a symphonic poem of serious magnitude. I’m surprised the strings had room to bow, or the trombones space to slide, given how tightly the musicians were packed on the stage. The third in Resphigi’s Roman trilogy, Feste Romane comes in four movements, each depicting aspects of Ancient Rome. The first opened with a wonderfully coherent trumpet fanfare that celebrates the occasion of gladiatorial combat. There was no subtlety in Chauhan’s presentation, nor should there have been. Who ever heard of a subtle gladiator? This was blood and guts and glory in Nero’s Rome and the CBSO were on fire. Everything was coming together: the power of the deep brass; the tension of the tempestuous strings; the driving tumult of bass drum and timpani. Even as the tempo and volume subsided to reflect a more ponderous depth of feeling in strings and woodwind, the forward motion of the first movement was inescapable and inevitably returned to reiterate the opening fanfares.

The remaining three movements continued in a similar vein, indeed, if anything became increasingly frenetic, especially in the brass and percussion. Yet there were moments of respite when we were treated to more unusual orchestrations. I particularly enjoyed the exploration of percussive chimes and the mandolin passage in the third movement. The fourth movement was as tight and absorbing as anything I have experienced at Symphony Hall, a truly climactic finale. The CBSO had got their mojo back.