At the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Karina Canellakis made her debut conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Given that orchestra's knack for finding exceptionally good young conductors to liven up the stable, this concert deserved attention. Canellakis was a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic's junior ensemble, the Orchester-Akademie, where she became a protégé of Simon Rattle, like Dudamel and others before. His agents, Askonas Holt, have taken her onto their books, which should launch her career very nicely. In 2014 she stepped in for Jap van Zweden in Dallas. This concert with the CBSO is so far her highest-profile European gig, broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
César Franck's Le chasseur maudit is a show stopper, almost guaranteed to blast audiences out of their seats. It's inherently dramatic. A fanfare of horns announces a hunt: but no ordinary, pastoral hunt. Percussion rings out, suggesting the tolling of church bells in the distance. This Sunday, though, the Huntsman's off to the woods instead, killing animals. The tale goes way back in European folklore. Think, for starters, Goethe's Die wandelnde Glock, set by Loewe, and Schoenberg's Gurrelieder and much else Gothic and demonic. Thus the piece ends with a loud sudden bang. It's not a rarity: I last heard it live barely 18 months ago. It's effects come from its being pictorial: not a great deal of musical imagination needed. Thus it needs more punch in performance to compensate, and here needed more vivid character.
Another surefire crowd pleaser: Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances op 45, also vividly pictorial. It's as if we see dancers swirl before us, as if in an elusive dream. Certainly, in this performance the dreamlike quality prevailed, but there are darker, more nightmarish depths to the piece. That repeated pounding motif and its quieter echo, can be disturbing. Towards the end of his life, Rachmaninov was looking back on a lost world, and a life spent in exile, sometimes in creative impasse. The waltzes can seem haunted. The violin plays alone, for a reason. The horns can be strident, and the winds can be sinister. But for all we know, Rachmaninov might have been writing to soothe himself. The CBSO is a such a good orchestra that it can convince whatever it does. So, perhaps the fluid smoothness had purpose. An undemanding though enjoyable performance. Picturesque music sometimes plays itself, though it works best when better thought through.
The highlight was Camille Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 (Egyptian) (1896) with Cédric Tiberghien. Much is made of the "Egyptian" aspects of the piece, since it was written in Luxor, but it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism. For men of Saint-Saëns's generation, European civilization was the height of progress, and that civilization encompassed the world. Napoleon's conquest of Egypt differed from the British conquest of India, just as French and British colonialism followed different models. The French fascination with "The East" was long standing : think Les Indes galantes, where the "natives" are Frenchmen in disguise. Or Lakmé, or The Pearl Fishers.
Ultimately, Saint-Saëns Piano concerto no.5 is far more than picturesque travelogue. It's not "light music". It's a work of bold musical inventiveness and originality. Perhaps that's why the piano part is so strong : the soloist as pioneer, very much the leader. Tiberghien faces the fearsome technical challenges : arpeggios fly with faultless confidence and elegance, and the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally. Like the Nile, with its confluent tributaries! Vaguely Arabic motifs blend into harmonies that are "modern" and European. Thundering passages suggest constant flux,with swirling diminuendos and passages of flamboyant brilliance. Nothing backward here, though the references may come from things remembered. Tiberghien played with highly individual flourish. Perhaps his enthusiasm invigorated the orchestra, who were playing at their best at this point in the concert.