1913. Pope Pius X declared the tango as a thing of immorality and unbefitting to good Catholics. He suggested people take up the furlana instead, which was said to be less sinful. Maurice Ravel, working on this Piano Trio at the time, wasn't impressed with the Pope's attempts to dictate enjoyment (or not) of that popular dance, but just so happened to find an example of an authentic furlana by Couperin in a musical magazine. "I'm working on something for the Pope," he wrote to a friend, and set off to write a modern version on the basis of Couperin's own dance, Le Tombeau de Couperin.

Nicholas Collon © Jim Hinson
Nicholas Collon
© Jim Hinson

As much as being an homage to his predecessor, each movement of the piece also is memorial to a friend of the composer's killed in the war. Despite the dedications, however, the piece set off with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's winds happily gurgling and the gently flowing strings in the Prélude. For the Forlane, which inspired the entire piece, Nicholas Collon quickly took his baton into his left hand to mould the sound with this right, allowing free flow towards the end and shaping the rhythmic interplay between strings and wind that suggest this supposedly chaste dance still has plenty of thrill. After the beautifully melancholy oboe in the third movement, some slight co-ordination issues at phrase ends were the only point of critique in an otherwise dynamically and expressively varied account of great verve of the Rigaudon. The re-entry of the subject after the gentler middle-section was surprisingly energetic.

With only little emotion, Ravel's is still a kind of memorial of things held dear by the composer, and this element is just as present in the rest of this programme of vivid colour and imagery. For Erich Wolfgang Korngold this was his career, his music. He concentrated on producing film scores for Warner Brothers whilst the Nazis had seized power in Korngold's native Austria, yet he returned his gaze to more conventional composition as soon as World War II was won. He felt it was time to him to make the crucial decision of whether to carry on setting Hollywood for the rest of his life, or whether to attempt a comeback as a "serious" composer. He opted for the latter, and while he did encounter some difficulty in receiving appreciation for his post-war works, his gloriously colourful Violin Concerto was premiered by Jascha Heifetz in St Louis.

Vilde Frang © Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

It employs enormous orchestral forces, including a large percussion group, and yet its opening bars are most gentle. Vilde Frang gave them a little bit of mystery that immediately caught the ear, but a strong, almost hectic vibrato distracted from the quiet excitement. Frang's tone was warm and golden in the lower registers; moving up, it was less bold, more fragile, as if painting in aquarelle. This required careful attention to balance, and Collon did balance it well. Hardly ever did the orchestra pull Frang under water as it washed over the solo line, but rather enveloped it in a warm, cosy coat. Vilde Frang;s silver thread-like tone was much better suited to the second movement with the characteristic harp and celesta accompaniment familiar from film music even today. She impressed with light, fluttery virtuosity in the final movement, yet a focussed determination seemed to inhibit her enjoyment of complete artistic abandon that could be seen in the orchestra, raising goosebumps with a final great tutti sweep.

Even after such a high-intensity piece, the CBSO showed no sign of exhaustion and dived into Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with great energy and a pithy sound. In this symphony the composer dispels his obsession with actress Harriet Smith, whom he had held very dear, yet she refused to even get to know him. He could have just renounced her, but Berlioz ends this episode with a bang. At a time where many in France had only just encountered Beethoven's symphonies, Berlioz explodes those boundaries. A beautifully played waltz with typical stretta and the wildly accelerated coda would have been unheard of in a symphony, and so would have been the walk to the gallows and the witches Sabbath closing the symphony. The third movement, with its very Beethovenian pastoral theme, impressed with very well co-ordinated off-stage oboe, but it was a rather long-winded walk through the countryside. After that, the Marche au supplice brought new colours in stopped horns and agile bassoons and much drama. From this jump-started the huge build-up to the finale, which ended with a big bang. It truly was a matinée fantastique with plenty of sparkle, passion and high spirits.