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Friday Night Classics: Ultimate Playlist with Classic fm – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Conductor: Stephen Bell

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The latest in the series of Friday Night Classics from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) sees their partnership with Classic fm bring the ‘Ultimate Playlist’. Presented by Classic fm presenter, John Suchet, this concert includes a number of favourites, some of which have special importance to the CBSO as it prepares for its 100th Anniversary in 2020, and all of which have at some time been recorded by the CBSO.

Suchet is the consummate MC par excellence. He brings an easy manner and displays his extensive knowledge of classical music as he introduces the pieces played – one feels almost as if one has been invited into his home to enjoy some fine music. But more than that: Suchet remains on stage as the orchestra plays, visibly enjoying the experience with a wide smile that brings to mind the cat who got the cream, straining forward as favourite moments approach. His evident enjoyment adds another dimension to an already enjoyable evening.

Our maestro tonight is Stephen Bell. While his conducting style can be understated during the quieter, more subtle pieces, he bursts into life when required, agitatedly directing proceedings and even jumping into the air to emphasise points. He certainly brings the best from the accomplished players of the CBSO.

The orchestra itself seems to be a single organism, with the different instruments contributing to the smooth sound that rolls off the stage in waves. There are, of course, individuals who have their moment in the spotlight – for example, cello leader Eduardo Vassalo picks out the main melody in a special arrangement for cellos, double bass and harps of La Cygne by Saint-Saëns.

The CBSO has a fine history – its first concert in 1920 was conducted by Sir Edward Elgar and he is represented today by Nimrod from his Enigma Variations, in a sombre and stately performance imbued by extra meaning following its use in recently in Remembrance commemorations. In its first season, the orchestra was also conducted by Jean Sibelius, whose Finlandia is presented tonight, with its oppressive brass opening that ultimately gives way to an uplifting finale.

There’s plenty of variety, from Coates’ sprightly Calling All Workers (familiar to many as the theme from Music While You Work on BBC radio) and Grainger’s quintessentially English English Country Garden to the regal Crown Imperial from Walton. There’s some pleasing fizzing eccentricity from Chabrier’s España, which, Suchet gleefully tells us, had its main theme and rhythm borrowed note-for-note for Perry Como’s 1957 recording of Hot Diggity Dog. Then there’s Berceuse and Finale from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, with a beginning so subtle the bows of the strings seem not to be moving and a finale in which Bell conducts like a man possessed.

The evening is rounded off by Ravel’s Bolero, which, the programme reminds us, is full of repetition but in such a way that no repetition of the theme is quite the same. Hearing this played live with the gradual increase in volume and tension is a wonderful experience and an excellent demonstration of why music should be enjoyed live in venues like Symphony Hall with its truly excellent acoustics.

This was genuinely an evening to remember, a well-balanced programme full of superb musicianship filling the hall with quite sublime sounds.

Reviewed on 20 November 2019                                                 Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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