Antonin Dvořák’s overture Othello was the first to be subjected to the Omer Meir Wellber re-think in this opening concert of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's season. This bewitching portrayal of the threadbare psyche was surprisingly vivid and fresh. The myriad of key and tempo transitions was precise; just noticeable enough to keep us on the narrative track without being jolted, and gently prompting us to recall the tragedy of the great play around which the piece wends. Wellber’s ability to spring nuanced detail from the score was impressive; the clarity of expression with which the orchestra played, intoxicating.

Omer Meir Wellber © Wilfried Hösl
Omer Meir Wellber
© Wilfried Hösl

The grace and profundity of Wellber’s commitment to the score also brought timeless humanity to the work. From the opening Lento until the climax, Wellber and the orchestra led us through a twisted and desolate psychological landscape to a place far away from familiarity. We followed, unquestioning and enthralled; trusting that we would exit unscathed. Spiky metaphysical angst is after all as intrinsic to us today as it always has been.

After Dvořák, Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto no. 1, performed by the CBSO’s newly appointed violinist in residence, Gidon Kremer. His mainstream and lesser-known repertoire is immense, his philanthropic work renowned and his awards numerous. He has a vested intellectual interest in the works of eastern European composers and actively promotes new music for the violin.

The first movement of the Bartók is a poetic Andante sostenuto; supposedly a portrait of Bartók’s unreciprocated love for violinist Stefi Geyer. Here Kremer displayed both an understanding of the spirit of the piece and a commitment to the subtleties of portraiture: light and shade, balance of objects, brushwork. But here too was a musician at one with his instrument, and his ultimate adherence to the ingenuity of the young Bartók; all perfectly buoyed by Wellber and the CBSO.

The Allegro giocoso second movement portrays Geyer’s “cheerful, witty and amusing” personality. We also hear references to a somewhat subversive sense of humour that must surely have played wholesomely into the hands of the adoring, love-sick Bartók. Kremer’s virtuosity was clear, as was his attention to the composer’s specific on-score instruction to the player. At no time were we uncertain of the intensity of the composer’s emotion.

My only gripe was brought on by the occasional lack of resonance demanded by a work of romantic malaise; such tonal provision would have made the performance even more exquisite. Substituting the splendour of sound with bruised melancholy may be a necessary act to portray the desolation of unrequited love, but at times Kremer’s performance sputtered beyond what I regarded as merely characterful.

The second half was given over to Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in E minor “From the New World”, a work considered by some to have been more instrumental in redefining American music than any other of its age. Indeed, it was (and still is) a bugbear of some American musicians that the Old World had such a hand not only in Liberty’s cultural redirection but also her musical ‘renaissance’ and the inception of a new school of intellectual composition.

Wellber gave us something we could get our teeth into. Wrought from the CBSO was a symphony that at times felt far younger than its 125 years. His conducting, which sometimes bordered on comically animated, delighted and energised both audience and orchestra. His constant communication with his players, his frenzied interactions with every section of his orchestra to lift prime passages and dampen others brought a clarity and shape to the work that is rarely seen.

For the seasoned concert-goer here was something new: a theatre full of palpable chutzpah and oomph. But perhaps even more striking was the sheer enjoyment had by those present that is often lacking in less driven performances. Clearly Wellber had found buried treasure and he shared with us the sort of zesty, throbbing America that so piqued Dvořák’s imagination.

A delightful programme all round and a transformative start to the CBSO’s new season.

****1