EIF 2018: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Usher Hall, Review

Rating (out of 5)
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City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Funeral Song Op. 5 (Stravinsky), Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 85 (Elgar), Daphnis et Chloé (Ravel)
Ludovic Morlot (conductor), Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello), Christopher Bell (director: Edinburgh Festival Chorus), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Running time

Works from three of the world’s greatest ever composers: the programme for tonight’s concert was tantalising – and the CBSO did not disappoint.

The evening opened with Stravinsky’s ‘Funeral Song’, this being its Scottish premiere. Having disappeared after its first performance at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1909, the score was later rediscovered, hidden behind a stack of music in the conservatory library in 2015. Like the score, the music itself gradually emerged from the darkness, with the muted double basses creating a heavy and brooding atmosphere right from the start. Its tidal crescendos were explored with surging rapidity, before the work – fairly short – reached its calm conclusion, directly mirroring the sombre beginning.

Elgar’s well-known Cello Concerto was performed with a twist this year, with cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason making his EIF debut. In May of this year, Kanneh-Mason became the highest charting cellist in Official Albums Chart history, his chart-topping debut album ‘Inspiration’ having been recorded with the CBSO. He will, of course, also be known to many from performing at the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

You had to pinch yourself to remember that this brilliant young musician is only nineteen, such was the talent and prowess with which he performed, his age belying his musical maturity. Throughout the performance, his gallery of facial expressions (maybe as well as his sneakers!) beguiled the audience; contrariwise, at the end, he himself seemed genuinely taken aback by the audience, with their rapturous applause. He duly responded, and delighted the crowd with a solo encore. This was a musician in who we saw such a transparent and authentic commitment to the music, with all emotional energy and enthusiasm being so clearly invested.

This was bound to be a hard act to follow, and after the Interval – during which Kanneh-Mason was the only topic of conversation – came Ravel’s ‘Daphnis et Chloe’. There was, to be honest, the odd free seat in the second half, as it was clear that there were a few who came just for the star cellist. Of course, Ravel’s ballet is an EIF favourite, and we have heard it several times at the Usher Hall in recent years. On this occasion, however, it was performed in its entirety, and this may have been a bit much in the context of the overall concert. That said, the sections recalling the shenanigans of the pirates were particularly well orchestrated. Moreover, the Festival Chorus did particularly well in ensuring that Ravel’s original wishes were duly honoured – that the wordless chorus was simply indispensable – and embued the atmosphere with a fairy-tale quality.

A memorable evening, which wasn’t to be missed; the performance finished at 10.15pm.

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Friday 17th August, 8.00pm, Usher Hall