Tonight's concert was listed under the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's "Indulge" series, and it was indeed an occasion for feeling well and truly spoilt. The orchestra was on great form for this delightful programme under young Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare. It was something of a family affair, as his wife, Alisa Weilerstein, was soloist in Prokofiev's brooding Sinfonia Concertante. The visitors were clearly a big hit with orchestra and audience alike.

Rafael Payare © Luis Cobelo
Rafael Payare
© Luis Cobelo
The performance got off to a flying start with the party atmosphere of Berlioz's overture Le Carnaval romain. Fashioned out of material from his unsuccessful opera Benvenuto Cellini, the overture is anything but a failure. Opening with the flourish of a wild "saltarello" dance, it seemed to be over in a flash, although contrasts in tempo here and there added to the drama and gave a little breathing space. Sweet legato strings were juxtaposed with lively percussion, and tambourines especially heightened the carnival spirit. Payare was thoroughly involved, conducting with his whole body, oozing dance-like rhythms even to the tips of his hair!  Irresistible momentum propelled the music all too soon to its conclusion in a blaze of glory.

Where Berlioz's overture had derived from a larger-scale work, Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante had undergone several transformations over a couple of decades before the composer was satisfied that this was the finished piece. It began life as a cello concerto and underwent unsatisfactory rewritings until, in collaboration with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Prokofiev developed and renamed it as a fair reflection of the symphonic scale of the work; the cello remains dominant but there is also a great deal of complexity in the orchestra's role.  During much of the revision process Prokofiev was fighting a losing battle with ill health and died a couple of years after it was finished.

The teamwork on stage was raked up a notch with the addition of the husband and wife rapport, plus Weilerstein displayed an intense partnership with her instrument – no mean feat being heavily pregnant! From the opening notes it was clear we were in for a warm, emotional time of it. By the end of the first movement, with interventions from different quarters of the orchestra but basically an improvisation for the cellist, you could sense that Weilerstein held the audience in the palm of her hand. The middle movement also held the gems of a heart-rendingly lyrical melody and a captivating extended cadenza, as well as some noteworthy wind highlights. 

Theme and variations was the order of the day for the final movement, with a relentless sensation of impetus throughout.  The cello played the stately main theme, contrasting with a more light hearted cadenza. This in turn led to a little comic relief courtesy of bassoon then cameo for soloist and a sextet of solo strings, which they all clearly enjoyed. Countless high arpeggios on the cello concluded this passionate interpretation and the audience responded equally warmly. 

If Prokofiev hadn't long to live after Sinfonia Concertante was finished, Tchaikovsky's death came even harder on the heels of his Symphony no. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique”. He famously commented on being pleased with this symphony: "I give you my word of honour that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have written a good piece", but he died just over a week after its première, rumoured to be suicide although never proven.

Unusual in its mood, since minor key symphonies in the 19th century were generally darkness-to-light journeys, this remains dark, reflected in the "Pathétique" label which conveys deep feeling and suffering. By the end of the finale, the music fades away into the darkness from which it emerged in the first place. A sense of struggle is highlighted by dynamic extremes and it's full of powerful emotion. But there are plenty of beautiful lyrical melodies, as well as opportunities to showcase the various orchestral forces, with the balance well-handled by Payane – the violas were under the spotlight for a couple of passages, and rightly basked in their applause afterwards. The whole indulgent performance got an enthusiastic reception from the packed Symphony Hall audience.

****1