tue 25/06/2024

Coote, CBSO, Wilson, Symphony Hall Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Coote, CBSO, Wilson, Symphony Hall Birmingham

Coote, CBSO, Wilson, Symphony Hall Birmingham

Sonic ecstasy and symphonic power in an all-British programme

John Wilson - we're not saying he's the new Barbirolli, but...Sim Canetty-Clarke

Can it be true? Was this really the CBSO’s first performance of Bax’s The Garden of Fand? OK, Bax is hardly mainstream repertoire, and if Oramo or Rattle had conducted it, someone would have remembered. Further back in the orchestra’s 96-year history, though, surely Adrian Boult or George Weldon must have been tempted? The records are vague.

The enterprising Michael Seal conducted it in a pre-concert slot with a student orchestra a couple of years back, but the performance with which John Wilson opened this concert was the first time the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has indulged in this guiltiest of British musical pleasures this century, at least.

Wilson conducted like he was making up for lost time: driving the music forward in big, surging arcs, pointing up Bax’s thematic connections, relishing the deep harmonic undertow, and, in short, putting the emphasis of this symphonic poem firmly on the "symphonic”. That’s important to say because purely as sound, it was gorgeous. Wilson let all the art nouveau details of Bax’s Celtic seascape swirl and flow, voicing big climaxes so that you really could catch the iridescent gleam of the orchestration and visualise the “sky of pearl and amethyst” that the composer described in his typically florid programme note. Harps glinted, the bass clarinet gurgled and snaked, and in the central love song, the violins let fly with vibrato as wide as the Irish Sea, streaming with passion.

It genuinely did feel like the climax of a spiritual journey Not terribly English? Hardly: few conductors take more care than John Wilson over the sound they draw from an orchestra. The gloriously idiomatic results bring the house down every year at the Proms, when Wilson conducts his own hand-picked orchestra in reconstructed scores from classic Hollywood musicals. But relatively few have commented on the sound he creates when conducting British music with a conventional symphony orchestra. It sounds different, and yet familiar: the wide-grained, flexible string tone; the glowing softness of the woodwinds; the brass by turns mellow and bandstand-brazen. It’s the sound you hear on Barbirolli’s classic recordings with the Hallé, a sound last encountered in the hands of Vernon Handley and the RLPO some time in the 1980s.

That in itself is a little miracle. But it’d be a lifeless exercise in style without Wilson’s freshness and vision – a spontaneous natural musicianship, coupled (on the strength of this concert) to an impressive and deepening grasp of long-range form. It’s too obvious to connect the way Wilson and the CBSO accompanied Alice Coote (pictured below) in Elgar’s Sea Pictures to the way he ducks and dives around Broadway singers with his own orchestra. But it was just as effective, Wilson subtly bringing out the way Elgar underlines his phrases with a bassoon or clarinet, and providing Coote with constant, sensitive support as – with darkened tone and quiet intensity – she probed some startlingly sombre depths. Sea Pictures still comes in for a lot of criticism, largely on account of Elgar’s choice of poetry (though we’ll happily swallow much worse if it’s in French or German). It’s time we accepted that these troubling songs, with their imagery of isolation and elemental threat, are as accomplished – and as complex – as anything by Mahler.

Alice CooteAnd on the strength of this performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, it’s time we put that “cowpat school” childishness to bed once and for all, too. All of Wilson’s strengths came into play here: the luminous, flowing orchestral sound he drew from a radiant CBSO (with poetic solos from horn player Elspeth Dutch and Rachael Pankhurst’s cor anglais), and the attention to texture: the shimmering clouds of sound in the second movement reminded you why Ravel regarded Vaughan Williams as his star pupil. And, above all, the sense in every phrase and detail that these were something more than just ravishing sonorities: that Wilson and the orchestra were speaking in their natural voice and communicating something of profound significance. The quiet ecstasy of the Symphony’s final resolution (the old agnostic Vaughan Williams’s Bunyan-inspired vision of the Celestial City) quivered with sweetness and – yes – passion.

But it wouldn’t have felt half as transcendent if Wilson hadn’t built to it so powerfully. When the horn calls that sound so mistily remote at the beginning of the Symphony rear up majestically at the crest of the finale, it genuinely did feel like the climax of a spiritual journey: an arrival at a long-sought goal. To reduce it to musicology, it felt symphonic. John Wilson has had a remarkable career so far, but tonight it felt like he was operating on a new level. And in a musical world that’s more urgently in need of new Beechams and Barbirollis than it is of Toscaninis and Klemperers, that’s big news. I’m not saying that Wilson’s anything but his own man. But I am saying that we need to start taking him very seriously indeed.

We need to start taking John Wilson very seriously indeed


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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No, it wasn't the first CBSO performance.

CBSO Andrew Davis B T H 13.09.1988



Many thanks Tim - if anyone was likely to know for sure, I knew it'd be you! The CBSO's own concert index does not include that performance; however, it wouldn't be the first glitch in the official records. Very glad to be corrected. And still - two performances in a century still seems shockingly few for such a significant work. How did you find John Wilson's performance?

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