Britishness has many faces. Where for many outside the UK, being British is equal to an obsession with politeness, the (reputedly bad) weather and innumerable cups of milky tea, there is much more to it. It is this “Britishness behind the scenes” that the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is exploring this season, offering a glimpse into the at times less serious moments.

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Ealovega
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Ealovega

Under conductor John Wilson, the orchestra bustled into life with William Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture. Walton, known by many for his music to Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, shows himself decidedly un-English and throws in virtually every percussion instrument for a musical feast whose finale with brilliant brass unleashed happy exuberance into Symphony Hall.

The nocturnal character of Frederick DeliusIntermezzo for Fennimore and Gerda stood in stark contrast, yet exuded surprising calm after the boisterous South African celebration. Beautifully played, especially in the tender dialogue of flute and oboe, it provided a smooth transition to three lesser-known songs by John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams. After Ireland’s Sea Fever, which miraculously evokes grey skies and rough sea even with its first orchestral chord, it was Vaughan WilliamsSilent Noon that stood out. Roderick Williams conjured up the peaceful countryside setting with great narrative skill as he seemed to view grass and clouds and flowers in wide-eyed admiration. The CBSO accompanied strongly and colourfully, without submerging Williams. 

Musically, it hardly gets more British or rather English than Edward Elgar, yet the inspiration and subject of his concert overture In the South is Italian through and through. While the Italy he visited with his wife and daughter 1903 wasn’t quite what he had expected – particularly the weather, which appears to have been rather English in nature, his thorough enjoyment of food and wine as well as the landscape shines through in his composition. With bigger, less jagged gestures, John Wilson formed the large arches of ancient aqueducts and the CBSO particularly shone in those heavier sections, embellishing the grandeur of the construction, and the big orchestral sweeps whose golden glow reflected the sun-drenched Italian hills.

The sonorous pot-pourri continued with Sullivan’s overture to The Yeomen of the Guard (which can be heard in its entirety this coming weekend) and Edward German’s Romeo and Juliet Nocturne. This piece, rarely programmed, captivated with its density of texture, combined with a serene lightness of melody. To me, this is how a Shakepearean love story should sound, its soaring theme interspersed with occasional harmonic shadows as a harbinger of the lovers’ fate.

From dramatic endings to no drama at all with Haydn Wood’s suite of an (ideal) London without sudden rain showers and traffic jams. His London Cameos show a joyfully bustling city, birds singing in St James’ Park and a lightly moving waltz for a Buckingham Palace ball, and again the CBSO shone with grand sweeps and a very present trumpet whose almost kitschy vibrato perfectly matched the happy atmosphere of Wood’s imaginary city.

Before the more or less official encore, Eric CoatesDam Busters March, there was still time for a bit more Roderick Williams. Picking up on the English tradition of post-dinner ballad singing, we were treated to some better-known songs such as the huffing and puffing Coronation Scot and Roses of Picardy. Where Wilson had hitherto managed to contain the accompanying orchestral forces, the balance was now lost and Williams was at times fully submerged, despite his best efforts. Yet his impeccable articulation, appealing tone and engaging narration in best Lieder fashion still drew the listener in to some beautifully intimate moments such as the tender, vulnerable falsetto last note in Coates’ I heard you singing.

The CBSO excited in grand fortes with splendid brass, wood and percussion. At other times, however, Wilson’s lax, shaking gestures seemed to take their toll in playing that was a little slack, and only in the encore did it constantly pack the punch that had since been missing. Much of that afternoon’s music, especially of the second half, is not rarely sniffed at as “Light Music”, yet it provided exactly that: light entertainment for a pleasant afternoon.