On 4th August, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra provided three kinds of symphony and three kinds of Romanticism.

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
© Benjamin Ealovega

The simplest of these, in both cases, was Ruth Gipps’ Symphony no. 2, Op.30, composed in 1945 and, like much of her output, largely neglected since. A staunch, practically militant, anti-progressive composer – who once stated that musical inspiration came either from God or was “rubbish” – her one-movement symphony certainly testified to her conservative ideals, adopting a rather basic, neo-Romantic harmonic language. Beginning not quite in medias res, Gipps nonetheless wasted no time with introductions, moving quickly through her opening ideas, veering between pastoralism, a hectic march and large dollops of archetypal British light music. Though the music evidently had some blood in its veins, it didn’t take long to realise that this was, in fact, a symphony all about ideas, though strung together in a long gestural chain rather than forming the basis for an argued, much less developed, musical structure. “Chop and change” seemed to be Gipps’ underlying principle, leading to an occasionally playful and elegant yet ultimately superficial experience.

The CBSO were obviously able to go much deeper in their performance of Brahms’ Symphony no. 3 in F major, leading to the most poignant music of the evening. In particular, the orchestra latched onto the inner movements and turned them into a powerfully unified singular act of expression, encompassing graceful dance-like passages (the piece at its most ostensibly carefree) and more weighty, even tear-strewn bouts of wistfulness. These were contextualised by a beautifully loose yet connected first movement, with conductor Mirga Gražinytė‐Tyla allowing space for the music to expand and contract while throwing a surprising amount of tantalising drama on the return of the opening idea. The last movement maintained the work’s deeply personal sensibility, conveying a real sense of joy which was made all the more telling in its remarkable, becalmed conclusion.

It’s been interesting to see, through the course of his career, how Thomas Adès’ music has its closest affinity not to the avant-garde, as many originally thought, but to post-Romanticism. His output is littered with quotations, references and allusions. This was also the case with his new Exterminating Angel Symphony, a short work culled from his eponymous 2016 opera. Whereas the opera had been fatally hobbled due to the decision by the composer and librettist Tom Cairns to turn Luis Buñuel’s absurdist terror into a comedic farce, as a symphony, shorn of its operatic trappings and 100 minutes of music, Adès’ material tapped into the original with far greater force and immediacy. 

The second movement March evoked a Shostakovich-like relentlessness while (entirely appropriately) simultaneously going nowhere, seemingly fixed to the spot outside the gates of Hell. The following Berceuse channelled traces of opulence into a filmic slice of slithering discomfort, resulting in a kind of baffled music, emotional but confined, earnest but confused. The last movement’s sequence of lopsided waltzes, though initially a bit characterless, ended up overrun with glittering and sighing gestures that made it seem positively haunted. But it was in the opening movement, Entrances, that Adès’ symphony was at its most direct and potent. Mirroring the movie’s unsettling repeat, where its characters enter the same mansion twice, the music similarly offered two takes of its progression from messed-up concentric scale patterns evolving into a darkly lustrous strangeness. The way the CBSO presented its closing series of low, steady string chords – quietly emphatic but borderline unhinged – brilliantly captured the profound, uncanny disquiet that makes Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel so unforgettable.