Last year was the centenary of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, but the 20 works it commissioned to mark the occasion are only now receiving their premieres. One of those pieces was Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel Symphony, whose first performance was the centrepiece of the all-symphonic programme Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducted in Symphony Hall, before taking it to the Proms tonight (5 August).
As the title indicates, Adès’s 25-minute symphony uses material from his opera The Exterminating Angel (based on Luis Buñuel’s 1962 surrealist film of the same name), which was premiered in Salzburg in 2016. Its four movements more or less follow the structure of the stage work. The first movement is created out of the music that accompanies the characters’ entrances; the aggressively insistent second is taken from the interlude between the first two acts, and the slow third from the luscious duet for its doomed lovers.
Only the finale ranges right across the opera, weaving together the fragments of waltzes that flit through the score to create a sinuous, threatening waltz that runs amok, rather like Ravel’s La Valse. It’s all brilliantly scored, of course, and is a wonderful orchestral showpiece that the CBSO clearly relished, though there’s always the feeling that this is music that comments on the ghosts of the historic past rather than something entirely itself.
Gražinytė-Tyla ended her triptych of symphonies with Brahms’s third – fleet and buoyant, if a bit superficial until the finale – but she had opened with a much less familiar work. Ruth Gipps was an oboist in the Birmingham orchestra for a season at the end of the second world war, and it gave the premiere of her second symphony in 1946. It’s a single-movement work in four distinct sections, which, Gipps revealed, depicted her life before, during and after the war. Stylistically, it’s a typical postwar British symphony, with Gipps’s teacher Vaughan Williams the obvious influence, and occasional touches of Sibelius; as the CBSO showed, it’s all expertly fluent, if never truly memorable.