wed 24/07/2024

Kremer, CBSO, Wellber, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - supercharged Dvořák | reviews, news & interviews

Kremer, CBSO, Wellber, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - supercharged Dvořák

Kremer, CBSO, Wellber, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - supercharged Dvořák

Mirga's maternity cover opens the new season with a perfect storm

Omer Meir Wellber - conducting electricityTato Baeza

A shrewd orchestra maintains a strong subs bench.

One of the major discoveries in Birmingham during the interregnum between Andris Nelsons’s premature departure and the appointment of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was the young Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber, whose taut, ferociously intelligent 2015 account of Brahms’s First Symphony prompted mutterings both inside and outside the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that he might be The One, or at least capable of running The One very close indeed.

Now, with Gražinytė-Tyla on maternity leave, he’s returned to cover one of her prime dates: and whatever you think of his personal style (his Brahms was accompanied in the programme by a three page, self penned philosophical essay), you’ve got to admire the sheer dogged imperviousness to fashion of a conductor who chooses to open a new season with Dvořák’s Othello Overture. It’s part of the trilogy of overtures that contains the rather more familiar Carnival, as well as the even less familiar In Nature’s Realm, and Wellber clearly believes in it every bit as intensely as he believed in Brahms.

This was a tense, concentrated performance in which big gestures were dispatched without underlining or grandstanding, and Dvořák’s orchestral colours – a low brass snarl, muted strings juddering icily beneath a melting woodwind exchange – came through with the clarity of a fever dream. Dvořák quotes Wagner’s Magic Sleep motif as Desdemona slips into her final, fatal slumber: Wellber despatched the murderous final chords so savagely, and so brusquely, that it was as if the piece had been cut off mid-flow.

Gidon Kremer (pictured below) was the soloist in another relative rarity, Bartók’s First Violin Concerto. Kremer is the CBSO’s artist in residence this season – another legacy of Gražinytė-Tyla's rapidly redrawn plans, and one which Wellber, understandably, seemed delighted to have inherited. The Bartók is no piece for a superficial soloist, and Kremer’s approach was disarmingly plain, playing with an unaffected, mezza voce tone, deploying his generous vibrato only to colour or shape a phrase, and letting the wandering lines of Bartók’s first movement gradually knot themselves around him. This might be the hangover from a summer attending concerts at the Royal Albert Hall but the CBSO’s strings sounded particularly sculpted and warm – though what string player wouldn’t be inspired by sharing a platform with Kremer?
Gidon Kremer - picture by Giedre Dirvanauskaite

Wellber, meanwhile, supported Kremer with crisp, pointed woodwinds and soft washes of impressionist colour. Perhaps the second movement could have done with a little more paprika, but the sensation of hearing a massive piece of chamber music led by Gidon Kremer was special enough. Kremer returns to Birmingham later in the season for a major Mieczyslaw Weinberg project, and as an encore he made a down-payment: three tiny, unaccompanied Preludes, played in a mixture of flashing half-tones and big red-blooded digs into the D and G strings that came up smelling of wood and damp soil. Wellber perched on an unused violin chair, so as not to miss a note.

If Othello had ended suddenly, the opening phrases of the “New World” symphony sounded as if they’d always been playing, and Wellber had merely turned up the volume. That sense - of hidden, elemental forces, masterfully channelled – powered the whole performance. Initially, it was Wellber’s sheer control that impressed, as he swept each section of the symphony’s outer movements towards its culminating point. But then came the quieter moments – the loving way he moulded the string accompaniment around Marie-Christine Zupancic’s first movement flute theme, and Rachael Pankhurst’s fluid, dark caramel cor anglais solo, and then let each melody unfurl and gather pace like an improvisation.

And repeatedly, just as you felt things were humming along a little too slickly, Wellber would open the sluices. The brass ripped through the texture, and Dvořák’s windswept climaxes took on the proportions and power of Mahler. Wellber’s gestures had been almost elegant in the Bartók. Now he thrashed about with clenched fists, generating an electrical storm whose hectic, brooding atmosphere the encore – the Slavonic Dance Op.46 No.1 – did nothing to dispel. It was a shattering reading, and I’m tempted to say a necessary one – at the very least, a reminder from a conductor of a new generation that the enduring stature of this great symphonic tragedy owes nothing to Smooth Classics compilations, or a TV advert that no-one under 40 ever saw. 


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