It was an interesting subversion of the maestro myth. Throughout Wednesday’s Symphony Hall concert, conductor Ludovic Morlot seemed determined to play down his own presence in favour of everyone else, particularly composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, whose Catamorphosis opened the programme, and violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Yet as the evening proceeded it became increasingly apparent of the degree to which the success of each piece rested on his shoulders.

Ludovic Morlot conducts the CBSO
© Beki Smith | CBSO

He delivered a remarkable interplay of contrasts. This worked on two levels in Britten’s Symphonic Suite from Gloriana. Not only did he create a lovely tilting between the formality of the dances and the suppleness of its intimate sequences, but also between both of those and the more solemn, dramatically potent material Britten introduces in the final movement. The transition from light Tudor evocation and placid lyricism (marred by an insistently out-of-tune oboe) into the high operatic drama was like entering another world, Morlot ensuring the ebullient conclusion betrayed signs of this inner darkness.

It was a tougher challenge in the Thorvaldsdottir. Following a fascinating first half conjuring a world of confusion that repeatedly discovers (first pitched, then rhythmic) clarity, Catamorphosis spent the rest of its duration meandering through the kind of blank cinematic string warmth one usually associates with Thorvaldsdottir’s compatriot Jóhann Jóhannsson. It was frustrating and surprising to find that earlier tantalising promise to be an apparent red herring.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir and the CBSO
© Beki Smith | CBSO

In spite of Kopatchinskaja’s best efforts to assert herself during the Shostakovich, Morlot again dominated the performance of the Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. In no small part this was due to a weakness of tone that failed adequately to project, robbing her of agency and causing the CBSO to swamp her. She was therefore heard to best effect in the work’s gentler moments, nowhere more so than the cadenza, in some of the most arresting music of the evening, transforming herself in a Danse macabre-like fiddler, dancing on the edge of an abyss. But it was Morlot and the orchestra who ultimately led the way, driving forward through the unstoppable Scherzo and Burlesque with exhilarating abandon, carrying Kopatchinskaja along with them and even threatening to lose her on several occasions.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Ludovic Morlot and the CBSO
© Beki Smith | CBSO

In case anyone was wondering whether it was possible to do anything new with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Morlot proved that it was. The crucial aspect that made this performance so successful was the way the orchestra teased out both explicit inner details and the implicit contrasts and qualifications lurking beneath the surface. In Dawn, this was somewhat literal, deconstructing the music into its three discrete layers, though each demonstrated simply gorgeous sonorities (particularly the brass). Moonlight benefited from being played with greater heaviness than one usually hears, never letting the music relax or soften but imbuing it with real tension, making the enigmatic final bars a genuine question mark. The other two movements were taken at breathtaking speed, and were all the better for it. Fast and fluid, Sunday Morning was characterised by wonderful flute playing and a superbly vivid rendering of the second half (following the church bell), Morlot not allowing the music to resettle but emphasising the harmonic obliquity and implied pain that plague the aftermath of this jarring moment. Rarely has Storm lived up to its name with more force, the CBSO sneering and snarling their way through the movement, its dissonances ramped up such that it even suggested the raw power of Varèse. The brief moments of repose before the end were exquisite oases of optimism before Morlot cast them aside, delivering the crashing end with pile-driving ferocity. It wasn’t merely stunning – it stunned

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