Review: Barber and Rachmaninoff – “life-affirming”

Simon Hale listens to the CBSO and their guest conductor.

Three life-affirming works with a New-World and Old-World connection were performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall with power and precision.

The tall slender Ghanaian-German guest conductor Kevin John Edusei was in command, his long arms and hands reaching out from the podium engagingly in a way that almost enveloped the entire ensemble. Forcing brisk tempi but with clarity and a great attention to detail, Edusei coaxed the orchestra into a full throttled take on the evening’s music by Antonin Dvorak, Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Dvorak’s Carnival Overture provided a rousing start, the audience placed in the position of what the Czech composer called “the lonely contemplative wanderer” arriving in a city “at dusk where a carnival is in full swing”. The nine-minute work was the centrepiece of what was originally a trilogy based on nature, life and love first performed at the Carnegie Hall in New York in 1892.

The CBSO, with a prominent role for the triangle, tambourine and clarinets, brought out all the joyfulness of the wanderer in discovering what Edusei in his introduction referred to as not just a festival but “life in full bloom”.

The American connection continued with Barber’s Cello Concerto, a rhythmically dramatic work from 1945 for which the composer provided no programme guide. New Yorker Alisa Weilerstein, in a striking red dress and long black hair that looked disconcertingly like it might interfere with her string playing, performed the lyrical and brooding passages with their huge technical and emotional demands – especially the cadenza – with great virtuosity.

You could also sense the wanderer in this piece as well, with the music arriving at one melody after another before immediately journeying on until finally arriving at a dramatic climax. The only slight disappointment after Weilerstein receiving sustained applause was the absence of an encore.

A journey of a different kind followed with Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 3, first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936 after the Russian composer had emigrated to America after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

One of Rachmaninoff’s final major original works, the symphony is regarded as a longing for his young life in Russia. As Edusei told the audience, “Rachmaninoff is aware of the transience of life and there is a bittersweetness to the work.”

Criticised at the time by the public for not being more romantic and by the critics for not being more progressive, the CBSO demonstrated why from a modern perspective the symphony is now heard much more frequently.The thrillingly powerful performance included both fiery passages played with a passionate intensity and ironic romanticism and a sad delicate lyricism in quieter moments before Edusei built up the tension to a gloriously vibrant conclusion.

The CBSO will perform Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 (Italian), along with Louise Farrenc’s Overture No 2, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 25 with Ariel Lanyi as soloist, and Franz Schubert’s Overture in the Italian Style in D major at 2.15 pm on Wednesday, June 19th at Symphony Hall.

For tickets call 0121 780 3333 or book online at

Pics – Marco Borggreve