An uncommonly bold programming manoeuvre pitting a percussion concerto against the most difficult of Mahler symphonies proved to be a taxing but enormously rewarding listen in this epically proportioned concert.

Colin Currie © Marco Borggreve
Colin Currie
© Marco Borggreve

Bolton-born composer Simon Holt wrote a table of noises for tonight’s soloist, Colin Currie and the CBSO in 2007. The title is a literal translation of a Spanish term for the cajón, and bears particular relevance to memories of the composer’s taxidermist great uncle, and more literally to the soloist’s kitchen table array of gear for the latter movements. Currie’s percussion array covered just about covered all the space usually occupied by the violin section, while the two orchestral percussionists were nestled away in opposite rear corners of the stage. The woodwinds were similarly eccentric – two piccolo players standing on opposite sides of the stage, and remaining woodwinds (alto flute and bass clarinet rather than the traditional instruments) were placed more centrally.

The 28-minute, six-movement work takes the orchestra to extremes of its capabilities. Tolerability was also stretched, in the loud, sustained piccolo cries of the opening minutes while Currie interjected with whistle and bongos. The most technically spectacular moments came in the dizzyingly virtuosic xylophone writing of the second and fourth movements, where both soloist and the two orchestral players ripped through semiquavers with thrilling swagger. If the second was impressive, the fourth was breathtaking in its combination of tuned percussion with celesta, harp and piccolo rhythm section and some wildly quick horn runs. Currie’s more measured showmanship, while seated at his kitchen table for the fifth movement, was dramatic if altogether more broadly spaced and considered, allowing each sound to dissipate into the hall before moving on. There was plenty to admire in the rest of the orchestra too, notably in the piccolo playing (with remarkable ensemble for two players standing 25m apart) and solos for bass clarinet and viola.

If there were one piece which might make Mahler 7 seem less of an unfathomably bizarre monster by comparison, it would surely be a table of noises. None of Mahler’s extremes of emotion, irony, triumph or despair were lost, but post-percussion it sounded a much more understandable beast than it does in the context of his other symphonies. John Storgårds, of course, must be credited with making such clear sense of the symphony. His tempi tended towards extremes, from a broad, 8-in-a-bar opening via a brisk third movement march to a finale which charged to a dashing close. Solos too were vividly written large, right from the plunging horn line of the opening pages (properly played on a German tenor horn) to the arrestingly full and direct traditional horn calls of the third movement, and the same section’s zesty military precision which set the finale off with a bang. 

There were aesthetic delights aplenty elsewhere, memorably in the rounded violin lines of the first movement, which soared with an intensely beautiful sound. The idiosyncrasies of Mahler’s writing were never glossed over, though, and the wild brassy romps of the Scherzo were attacked with every bit as much fun as the mandolin lines in the fourth movement. A spectacular finale, driven by blistering timpani and heavy brass, brought the night to a suitably climactic close.