We have plenty of opportunities to hear Bruckner's Fourth and Ninth Symphonies and almost as many to hear Bruckner's Seventh. His Eighth is wheeled out for special occasions and the Fifth seems to be a popular item with German/Austrian orchestras on international tours.  Once in a blue moon, we’ll hear the Sixth (usually when a big-name conductor wants to settle an argument about its ‘difficulty’) but performances of the early symphonies are as rare in Britain as the proverbial hen’s dentures.

Alpesh Chauhan conducts the CBSO © operaomnia.co.uk
Alpesh Chauhan conducts the CBSO
© operaomnia.co.uk

So, there was much anticipation when the CBSO dusted off the Third Symphony, in its original (and longer) 1873 version for its second concert of the 2016-17 season, under its former Assistant Conductor (and Birmingham native) Alpesh Chauhan. Tagged as the “Wagner Symphony” (for no better reason than that the elder composer accepted Bruckner’s dedication of it to him), the work is in truth no more Wagnerian than any of its eight or so siblings and little is gained, and much perhaps lost, by emphasising the moments that reference Bruckner’s great mentor.

Chauhan avoided the pitfalls of point-scoring and spotlit exaggeration to concentrate on the work’s architecture and harmonics. He got things  off to a thrillingly anticipatory start with the strings pulsing like a heartbeat against the opening trumpet figure and by the time the orchestra launched into the second subject (with an ‘echt’ Viennese spring in its step), it was clear that all would be well. The first movement is of formidable length – nearly 25 minutes – and its structure contains all the customary Brucknerian bear traps of sudden pauses, pregnant silences and wild changes of tempo: the hallmark style that Beecham waggishly likened to “coitus interruptus”. It was a measure of Chauhan’s mastery of the score that the hesitations and shifts between subjects seemed entirely organic, with no hint of the lumpishness that can afflict less confident performances. The final movement was particularly successful, bringing to vivid life Bruckner’s own description of “a ball taking place across the road from a room where a corpse is lying” and if attention occasionally wandered, this was less the fault of conductor and orchestra than a composer still finding his way (the Third is widely believed to be the symphony with which Bruckner attained maturity, but I give that accolade to the Fourth).

Chauhan has already established himself as a more than promising talent, an alumnus of Birmingham’s own Youth Orchestra and with a podium presence that at the moment is intriguingly caught between diffidence and an assurance that belies his youth. He brings a serious sense of purpose to his music-making and his gestures, strong but never flamboyant, show the beginnings of an interesting baton technique. His relationship with this orchestra, with which he has grown up, is poised at an exciting juncture and the rest of the programme certainly whetted the appetite for what is to come. 

Strauss’ Four Last Songs is one of comparatively few post-1945 orchestral works to have gained a permanent place in the concert repertoire. It is a a song cycle of rich Romanticism, composed in the wake of World War 2, as the composer himself looked toward death and celebrated, through the poetry of Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, his enduring relationship with his wife Pauline. A work that evokes autumn in both mood and words, it received a powerful performance from American Talise Trevigne, whose soprano blended seamlessly into the glowing wash of sound produced by the orchestra. Although there were moments when Trevigne’s consonants disappeared and her delivery of the texts seemed somewhat generalised, her tonal quality was an ideal match for this evocation of autumnal love.

The programme was headed by the overture from Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel: brief and a perfect curtain-raiser, this showed all departments of the CBSO at their best, pouring out a tasty stream of musical confectionary, more icing sugar than gingerbread! A calorific start to a programme that delivered all kinds of treats.  

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