Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is an infrequent visitor to the concert hall, more’s the pity. It’s a symphony with obbligato viola rather than a concerto but there’s no doubting the protagonist in the piece, particularly in a performance as commanding as that given by Renaud Capuçon in this concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor, Alain Altinoglu.

Alain Altinoglu © Marco Borggreve
Alain Altinoglu
© Marco Borggreve

Capuçon is better known for his starry career as a violin soloist. Violists tend to regard violinists wading into the viola repertoire with suspicion and with good reason; it’s not as straightforward as some imagine for violinists to master the larger instrument. Notwithstanding this, Capuçon greatly impressed with his ability to project his handsome tone in all but the fullest moments in Berlioz’s Byron-inspired symphony. In fact, Capuçon’s playing had a sweep and passion that proved hard to resist.

Paganini was famously disdainful of the work. He had encouraged Berlioz to write a piece to showcase his newly-acquired Stradivarius viola in 1833 but he was unimpressed by the number of tacet bars the soloist has while the large orchestra unleashes its collective might in the score’s whipcrack tuttis. This is most apparent in the last movement, particularly after the clever introduction – surely a tribute to the opening of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its recall of the thematic material from all that has come before – when the soloist steps aside for the riotous music of the brigand’s orgy. If Capuçon fell short at all it was in the string crossing passage at the centre of the Pilgrims’ March second movement; others have made this sound more magical.

Altinoglu, for his part, clearly has an affinity for the music of his compatriot composer. He maintained a steady trajectory through the more symphonic outer movements ensuring Berlioz’s spiky rhythms were meticulously articulated. Not for Altinoglu the abandon of the late Sir Colin Davis in this repertoire, but that is not to say that he and the orchestra held back. Climaxes were unleashed but in a more controlled fashion. No doubt this is a result of Altinoglu’s technique: his gestures are small and precise, only becoming more animated when required. Every gesture appeared helpful to the orchestra and likely explains the commitment and security that was on display in every department of the orchestra, from front desk to back.

The concert opened with a poised performance of Rossini’s overture to The Italian Girl in Algiers, which featured some notably suave oboe playing from Rainer Gibbons. Again, Altinoglu’s precise conducting ensured that Rossini’s difficult tempo transitions were executed smoothly. Here was a performance that was both joyous and buttoned up.

The two pieces in the second half of this generous and thoughtful programme were connected by the themes of ballet and Ancient Greece. Ravel’s second Daphnis et Chloé suite showcases some of the ballet score’s most gorgeous and exciting music. It demanded the largest orchestra of the evening. There was some ravishing flute playing from Marie-Christine Zupancic and some typically feisty E flat clarinet moments from Joanna Patton in the thrilling “Danse générale” that closes the suite. The start of the suite blossomed from an ideal shimmering and opened out into an exhilarating burst of orchestral brilliance. Symphony Hall accommodates such tutti passages with ease but I felt once or twice that Altinoglu could have perhaps achieved a more nuanced sound in these moments.

Stylish sound was very much in evidence in the preceding ballet score Apollo. The CBSO strings were in fabulous form for Stravinsky’s curious score, which is characteristic of the so-called “neoclassical” period in his writing. There are none of the sonic excesses of his own early ballet works, smash hits though they are, or indeed of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. The soundworld is crystalline and refined, though still distinctly Stravinskian in rhythm and propulsion.

Apollo was one of several works in which Stravinsky explored themes around Ancient Greek mythology. The work is essentially a fusion of elements of French Baroque dance suites with more angular elements. Altinoglu had clearly internalised this tricky score for he made little reference to it during his traversal. The performance came across as meticulously prepared. Long lines really breathed whilst rhythmic passages were executed with the utmost precision, something of an Altinoglu hallmark it would seem. Laurence Jackson, Zoe Beyers and Eduardo Vassallo all impressed with their respective solos. The smiles amongst the players throughout the evening spoke volumes about their respect for the modest Frenchman. Mr Altinoglu should be encouraged to return to conduct again in Birmingham without delay.

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