His six-year stint as Principal Guest Conductor may have ended in 2016, but Edward Gardner is still a regular visitor to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and here directed a generous programme with matters of life and death intermittently to the fore.
It might frequently have fallen victim to accusations of false profundity, but Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration (1889) remains as assured a statement by a composer ‘on the rise’ as there has been and was rendered thus. Gardner chose not to emphasise those already pronounced emotional contrasts, preferring to focus on the long-term formal cohesion which carries this piece from its initial stages of doubt and anxiety, through its central conflict on the cusp of mortality, to an apotheosis where transcendence is tellingly confirmed before a final repose.
Such issues were ostensibly far from Prokofiev’s mind while he essayed his Second Violin Concerto (1935). Often seen as a transition between the brusque neoclassicism of his final Western works and inherent lyricism of those written after his permanent relocation to the Soviet Union, its emotional ambiguities are everywhere to be heard and Baiba Skride duly underlined these in the first movement with its tail-chasing alternation of introspective and animated ideas. The central Andante pursued a similarly halting progress, in the course of which Gardner brought out the subtle half-lights from what is some of its composer’s most adept orchestration. Incrementally more dynamic, the Finale displayed its Spanish trappings pointedly on the way to a conclusion as nonchalant yet as ominous as this music warrants.
There was no lack of conviction in Gardner’s account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony (1902). What used to be felt the climax of this composer’s Romantic-Nationalist phase is now more likely to be viewed as a transitional work riven with emotional ambiguity, but though Gardner gave these latter their head in the second movement, this did not preclude a sure formal focus from emerging; however much in spite of itself. Before this, the opening Allegretto was fluidly despatched – its easy melodic appeal allied to a structural ambivalence which became increasingly apparent as it unfolded. A pity, though, that Gardner did not take an attacca between these movements so as to underline their fraught continuity.
The Scherzo evinced no lack of impetus or, in its trio sections, eloquence – Gardner handling the cumulative transition into the Finale with tensile resolve such that the latter audibly hit the ground running. Its grandiloquence was kept effectively in check, as Gardner marshalled the rhetoric of its alternately fervent and musing episodes towards a coda the more decisive for its absence of emotional overkill. That Sibelius was soon to move away appreciably from its concerns is not to the detriment of a work which still succeeds undeniably on its own terms. As, indeed, did this performance as the second half of a concert that Gardner and the CBSO will play again at Symphony Hall on May 3. Conductor and orchestra can subsequently be heard in an intriguing programme of Mendelssohn and Schubert at the Town Hall on July 8.