The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra marked its centenary with a big concert, albeit with no audience present, streamed from the PRG Studio in Longbridge, a vast space that allowed the physically distanced musicians to play together for the first time since March. Simon Rattle conducted, while the current music director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, now on maternity leave, was among the talking heads discussing the orchestra’s history and achievements.
The programme, gazing at the past while celebrating the present, included Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, performed at the orchestra’s inaugural concert in 1920, and the 1919 suite from Stravinsky‘s Firebird, the first music the CBSO played when it moved to Symphony Hall in 1991.
The acoustic was on the dry side, and it took a while for the recording balance to settle, with the orchestra curiously distant during Schumann’s Genoveva Overture, which opened the concert, and the Elgar that followed. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, soloist in Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto, sounded, if anything, fractionally over-amplified. Against that, however, must be set the quality of conducting and playing. The concerto, swivelling between Romantic effusion and nostalgia for 18th-century classicism, is a lovely work that suits the unforced lyricism of Kanneh-Mason’s style exceptionally well.
The sound quality had improved by the time we reached Hannah Kendall‘s The Spark Catchers, an angry, brilliantly scored piece, written in 2017, and based on a poem by Lemn Sissay dealing with the match workers’ strike of 1888. AR Rahman‘s suite from his Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack is effectively a concerto for sitar and orchestra, the former played with staggering dexterity by Roopa Panesar. Firebird, meanwhile, was beautifully done, with finely focused woodwind solos in the Princesses’ Khorovod, a real eruption of violence at the start of the Infernal Dance, and a wonderfully drowsy sensuality in the Lullaby.