Review: French Connections

Simon Hale views the CBSO’s latest digital offering.

While restarting live concerts still looks many months away, streaming remains a way forward for leading orchestras – and that includes the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Having streamed its 100th anniversary concert live last August from a warehouse, the CBSO has thankfully continued to release new digital concerts for viewing and listening to online.

The latest offering, French Connections, included three sublimely melodic and colourful works which even without the added energy from an audience were enough to fire the imagination.

Recorded on December 2nd in Symphony Hall, the digital concert conducted by the exuberant Ben Gernon featured compositions by Joseph Haydn and Benjamin Britten but began with the overture to an opera by a composer dubbed the ‘Black Mozart’.
L’Amant Anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, provided instant relief to the current lockdown with its witty and jolly take on the theme of an anonymous lover.

Born the son of a slave and a plantation owner in the French Caribbean, Saint-Georges was quite a star according to the programme notes. Not only was he a violin virtuoso, conductor and composer in the court of Marie Antoinette, but he was also a dazzling swordsman who raised and led a regiment in the eighteenth century French revolutionary wars.

While there is no evidence that he ever had dealings with Mozart, his French Connection with Haydn was in commissioning and then premiering his six Paris Symphonies in 1784. The CBSO performed the third of these symphonies, No 84 in E flat major – a work that exemplified why Haydn was considered the father of the symphony. Scored for a large orchestra it delivered the richly expressive symphonic sound that we come to think of today.

Moving from a stately introduction to variations on a theme, there were opportunities for individual sections from basses to bassoons to shine. There was even an amusing pizzicato section in which the violin players plucked their instruments as if they were strumming banjos. A dashing jokey finale was a head-banging delight (without the heavy metal).

The highlight and centrepiece of the concert, however, saw the return of Mary Bevan to sing Britten’s Les Illuminations, set to the poetry (in French) of Arthur Rimbaud. The renowned London soprano had in 2018 performed the world premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s Faithful Journey with Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO at Symphony Hall.

Shining a light on the ‘parade’ of people in modern city and country life, this was a performance that let the imagination run wild with Mary Bevan giving a highly charged and emotional performance in perfect collaboration with the orchestra.

The overall power and atmosphere of the concert was reinforced by the excellent production standards achieved by the CBSO through its streaming partner River Rea Films, who got both the both intimate and the roving camera work spot on.

The CBSO’s French Connections concert is available to view online here until Friday, February 12th, priced at £10 per person.