Birmingham and Frankfurt

I have been present at two excellent concerts recently, in two European cities, with two British orchestras, and two American conductors.

Birmingham’s own City Symphony Orchestra (and I have been one of it’s fans for many years) , was playing in its superb auditorium, Symphony Hall. And in Frankfurt, there on holiday, we were able to hear the splendid Philharmonia Orchestra performing in the Old Opera House, an impressive if rather dour auditorium in the centre of that amazing city. They were half way through an extraordinarily demanding continental tour. It was interesting to compare the acoustics of the two halls – in Birmingham the sound warm but crystal clear, and in Frankfurt to my ears (and I am no expert) a rounded, but less precise sound.

Both programmes had a heavyweight of a symphony after the interval. In Birmingham it was Shostakovich’s 10th. During his years of virtual disgrace, the composer had curbed his enthusiasm for great statements in music, and there had been an eight year gap between this work and his 9th symphony.

It was apparently received with great success after its first performance, and in Birmingham was applauded as wildly as a matinee audience of older people as we were, can manage.

There is a sort of Mahler-madness in the musical world at the moment, as the centenary of Gustav Mahler’s death is honoured around the world by many performances of all his symphonies and song cycles. It was his 5th in Frankfurt. In the company of two special people who are not however classical music lovers, I was more than usually conscious – and the acoustics may have contributed to this – of how remorseless the work can sound, especially in the scherzo, despite the interplay between the solo horn, the horn section and the rest of the orchestra. I think all the repeats were played and the pace was often slow, but for me it was a magnificent performance and at its end, my companions agreed!

And the conductors? In Birmingham.

, Andrew Litton whom I had heard a few weeks earlier in Bristol, where he was conducting the Bournemouth Symphony of which he is now Laureate after some years as its Principal Conductor, a position he now has with the Bergen Philharmonic. Compared to Frankfurt’s conductor he is a young man for Lorin Maazel is now over 80. (see my ‘Ageing’ blog, May 15th ). Slight in stature but commanding in authority, he conducted without a score, revealing his age only by holding on to the rostrum rail sometimes during the performance and walking very slowly off the platform afterwards before returning many times to respond to the applause.