Review: Beethoven, Ravel and Berlioz

Simon Hale views the CBSO’s latest performance from a distance.

Two of the best-known and least-known works in the classical repertoire bookended a digital concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra that thrilled with its virtuosity and infectious dance rhythms.

Conducted by Michael Seal, a Birmingham Conservatoire-trained and former CBSO violinist, the socially distanced programme recorded in December has been streamed online under the programme title of Beethoven’s Seventh.

The perfect antidote to Covid gloom, it was impossible not to smile at the joyful energy fuelled music of Berlioz, Ravel and Beethoven performed with such freshness, enthusiasm and panache by a large orchestra in Symphony Hall.

Beethoven regarded his Seventh Symphony as “one of my best works” and the conductor in his introduction pointed to the theme of the concert in reminding us that Wagner called the slow second movement “the apotheosis of the dance”.

The repeating rhythmic pattern of the movement made you think of a medieval courtly dance while the whole work exuded repeating rhythm and verve as the orchestra took us through haunting and joyful melodies to an heroic conclusion.

Berlioz on the other hand hated his Overture to Rob Roy so much he decided to burn the score after the first performance. Fortunately, a copy had been delivered to the Paris Institute which has meant that it can still be heard today. This rarely performed work deserves much more of an airing. As the opening number it set the tone for the hour-long long concert with jaunty Scottish country folk dances and melodies to which you almost wanted to get up and jig.

The CBSO’s new leader Eugene Tzikindelean played a thrilling virtuoso cadenza of almost five minutes beginning all on the G string to open Ravel’s Tzigane. Composed after being inspired by Hungarian gypsy dance music and as a tribute to the violin, the work was also supremely supported by an orchestra that found just as much energy even without a live audience.

The CBSO’s Beethoven’s Seventh concert is available to view online until Friday, February 26th, priced at £10 per person.