Richard Farnes’ tenure at Opera North, which ended this year, established him as a major conductor and transformed the reputation of the company’s orchestra. Having achieved so much, Farnes’ returns to freelance status with an unusual degree of anticipation focussed upon him and many (myself included) are looking forward to a closer exploration of the symphonic and concert repertoire, parts of which Opera North’s concert schedules allowed him to touch on.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Unfortunately, this pairing with the CBSO showed neither conductor nor orchestra at their best, as became apparent early on in the first item, the overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The curtain-raiser on an opera that depicts, not always convincingly, the conflict between sensuality and asceticism, it is in some ways a work of glorious immaturity, gauche in its effects and, as others have commented, more successful in depicting the pious world of Rome than the abandon of the Venusberg. At this stage in his career, Wagner had not yet succeeded in depicting sensuality in music (that breakthrough came with Tristan und Isolde); still, it remains a glorious and exciting piece, which can lift the spirits even in a routine performance.

Sadly, this was a routine performance.  Although hard to fault technically, the orchestra gave a cautious reading lacking in that very quality of abandon that the score demands. This was music for well-behaved domestic felines, not wild, whirling satyrs. If this sounds harsh, take it a measure of my disappointment, as Farnes is undoubtedly a great Wagnerian, as anyone who heard him conduct the Opera North Ring Cyle already knows. It was possibly a mistake to choose the ‘Paris’ version of the overture, which bleeds into the Venusberg music (and so works better in the opera house):  the ‘Dresden’ version with its restatement of the Pilgerchor theme leading into a majestic climax works better in the concert hall. 

A similar air of lassitude afflicted the Sibelius Violin Concerto, although this might have had more to do with Jack Liebeck’s pedestrian account of the solo part than with the orchestra which, as in the Wagner, was never less than efficient. Liebeck has a reedy and ungenerous tone, not suited to a work of such pungent late Romanticism and his interpretation of the slow movement in particular evinced minimal emotional involvement. Although things picked up a little in the ‘polonaise for polar bears’ of the final movement, it was too little too late to save this performance, which rather undersold this glowing concerto. As an encore, a transcription of Tarrega’s Memories of the Alhambra didn’t redeem things. 

By contrast, Farnes’ stately canter through Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony almost did. This was a winning performance with the right kind of attention paid to balance and dynamics and the orchestra, for the first and only time this evening not seeming hemmed in by the sense of properness that had afflicted the earlier items. Described by Robert Schumann as a “slender Greek maiden” (between the Nordic giants of the Third and Fifth symphonies), this is a work that can struggle to make an impact because it lacks the assertive character of its immediate neighbours. Farnes didn’t seek to make apologies for the Fourth’s ‘small scale’ character in a reading that balanced the darker elements that hang over the opening moments with the lighter ones that overtake them as the work progresses. The acceleration into the Allegro vivace of the first movement was expertly handled and there was a glowing account of the Adagio as well as an ideally contrasted repetition of the Trio section in the Scherzo.  

Not the CBSO or Farnes’ greatest night then, but it was good to have them finish on a relative high.  I look forward to more satisfactory results next time Farnes tackles the symphonic repertoire.