Here’s a pertinent fact for a classical music website: in 1991, when the wonderful World Wide Web was poised to ensnare anyone with computer access, Birmingham’s Symphony Hall opened its doors to the concert-going public for the first time. It quickly won critical acclaim with artists from across the globe and it’s known as one of the best anywhere. Patrons love it, and tonight’s capacity audience found itself caught up in a spirit of celebration. Striking flowers adorned the stage, and the chrome on Andris Nelsons’ podium seemed to have added sparkle. As he launched the CBSO headlong into Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla Overture, he positively danced and straight away established a party atmosphere. The breakneck speed was then tempered by a slower legato stretch, and I found myself swaying with the cellos.

Bryn Terfel
Bryn Terfel

Other anniversaries – in fact centenaries – featured in the programme, namely Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Elgar’s The Music Makers. The instrumentalists and the CBSO Chorus were always going to have their work cut out sharing the bill with Bryn Terfel, but directed by Simon Halsey they took us up to the interval in fine style with the Elgar. Elgar himself conducted the first performance of The Music Makers at Birmingham Town Hall in 1912. It’s a work that’s sometimes been criticised because its setting, Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s imperial poetry, has become rather dated, and also for its many references to the composer’s other works – The Dream of Gerontius, Enigma Variations and Sea Pictures. However, this can be seen as part of its charm, rather like meeting old friends. Elgar had a penchant for changing his time signatures with alarming frequency, and also threw in plenty of dynamic variations. This performance took all this in its stride, moving through restful, indeed dreamlike, to exciting, although while everything was going full throttle at ‘Trample a kingdom down’ there was a little danger of the orchestra trampling the choir down. The poise and control of the final lingering ‘dreams’ was impressive. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice gave a very spirited performance, and her higher notes in particular were exquisite.

The second half began with the audience exploding into applause once a certain larger-than-life Welshman set foot on – no, took possession of – the stage. Bryn Terfel’s programme was perfectly judged, with fun, laughter, flirtatiousness, intrigue, menace and drama, as well as a sense of place with a sequence of British folk songs. The power of his voice and command of the music was a given, but what I hadn’t bargained for was the sheer force of his personality. His rapport with the audience was phenomenal, with eye contact, gesture and overwhelming warmth. Clearly, he enjoyed working with the other performers, and a lovely detail at the end of the Toreador’s Song was his saluting the men’s chorus by the flick of an imaginary matador’s cape. Bryn and Andris struck up quite a partnership in the aria ‘Udite, udite’ from L’elisir d’amore. ‘Dr Dulcamara’ brought on an innocuous bottle of beer which he playfully discarded near the conductor’s feet, only to bring out a fearsome brew from his back pocket. With apparently effortless ease the tongue-twisting catalogue of ailments was dispatched, upon which the serious bottle was cracked open and downed in one, Andris watching intently (thirstily?) and directing the orchestra to sustain the note until the last drop . A pantomime drunken high five between soloist and conductor added to the general glee.

The mood shifted with the understated but expressive folk song The Turtle Dove. ‘Roam ten thousand miles’ was made to sound like forever and there was a heartrending pianissimo at the end. Hazell’s clever arrangement then makes a smooth transition, via horns, into Loch Lomond, and without making a song and dance about it, the audience were invited to join in. Once we got the hang of singing with this superstar, a cross between the ultimate showman and the boy next door, there was no stopping us and the party was definitely ‘Alive, alive-o’ with Molly Malone, during which Bryn somehow sang with his eyebrows. As he melted into his mother tongue for Cariad Cyntaf, you didn’t need to understand the words to know that this was about love. Gorgeous.

Back to the reason for the party, the programme officially closed with Daphnis et Chloé, echoing Symphony Hall’s opening night 21 years ago. This ballet music, with wordless chorus, is atmospheric and heartfelt, conjuring up sylvan scenes of nymphs, satyrs and pirates, and building – via an intoxicating flute solo by Marie-Christine Zupancic – to a spectacular climax.

But the party wasn’t over yet: Bryn Terfel gave us a tender encore in the shape of a Welsh folk song, which chimed with tonight’s Elgar – ‘I’m dreaming of the mountains of my home’. I’m dreaming of seeing him in grand opera.

****1