I can say with confidence that in the many years I have seen the CBSO in concert, tonight’s performance was undoubtedly their best. Yes, the repertoire suited them – a pleasingly balanced programme bookended by well-known tunes from Bizet’s Carmen and Ravel’s Boléro plays to the CBSO’s strengths – but more than that, the CBSO seemed transformed under the leadership of French conductor Alain Altinoglu. With invigorating, charismatic confidence Altinoglu elicited from the orchestra depths of emotion and vibrance that I’ve never heard them produce before.

Alain Altinoglu © Fred Toulet
Alain Altinoglu
© Fred Toulet

Opening with Carmen Suite No.2, a selection of six of the most well-known arias from the opera compiled by Fritz Hoffmann and adapted for the concert hall, the concert got off to an exciting start. An impressive rendition of the ‘Habanera’ (incidentally not composed by Bizet himself, but borrowed from popular Spanish composer Sebastián Iradier) saw Altinoglu virtually dancing on his podium, whipping the orchestra into a frenzy which overshadowed the rather static ‘Marche des contrabandiers’. Unfortunately the quieter, more delicate ‘Nocturne’ aria was not so successful, but again this was eclipsed by the fantastic performance of the ‘Chanson du toreador’, where the orchestra captured all the pomposity and swagger of this aria.

Ravel’s Shéhérazade filled the remainder of the first half, bringing an effective contrast to the earlier piece. Inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite of the same name, Ravel’s Shéhérazade comprises settings of three poems by Tristan Klingsor. Capturing a mystic, orientalist sense of the East, Ravel’s orchestration subtly underpins the vocal line, always supporting and never overshadowing. The CBSO carried off their role of accompanists perfectly, never overpowering mezzo-soprano Nora Gubisch and instead really allowing her to shine. A supremely confident and expressive performer, the chemistry between Gubisch and the orchestra seemed just right, perhaps in part due to the chemistry and understanding between Gubisch and her husband, conductor Altinoglu.

Bizet’s Symphony in C followed the interval, bringing the programme a delightful symmetry. Though technically fine, as with the Carmen Suite No.2 the orchestra seemed to take a while to warm up. As the performance progressed, it did become far more involving and captivating. Ravel’s Boléro got off to a very hesitant start with a tentative entry on the snare drum. This was recovered, however, with each soloist’s entry bringing strength to the piece and thanks to Altinoglu’s tireless energy. The oboist, bassoonist and in particular saxophonist added a seductive flare and gave the piece some personality. By the entry of the timpani, Altinoglu had won the orchestra and audience round and the performance really stepped up a notch. It culminated in what can only be described in a cacophony of sound – an exuberant and fitting end to the concert.

This was an occasion where the orchestra really appeared to be enjoying themselves and the difference in made to my own enjoyment of the concert was vast. Each musician was rapt and every single member of the orchestra poured all their concentration and effort into the finale. The music may not have been technically perfect, but what Altinoglu achieved tonight was to inject some vitality and enthusiasm into the performance which made it the best CBSO performance I have seen.