Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Every two years or so, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra gives the premiere of a work commissioned by the Feeney Trust, the city's own arts-based charity. The latest commission has in fact been shared with the orchestras in Dallas and Odense, both of which performed the Fourth Symphony by Poul Ruders before it reached Birmingham. The UK premiere should have been conducted by the CBSO's music director, Andris Nelsons, but he was at home in Latvia awaiting the birth of his first child, and his place on the podium was taken by Nikolaj Znaider.
Ruders subtitles his half-hour work An Organ Symphony. But though the instrument (played here by Birmingham city organist Thomas Trotter) features prominently in all four movements, it's never spotlighted in a concerto-like way. Instead, Ruders – who began his musical career as an organist – mostly integrates the instrument with the orchestra using aural sleight-of-hand, so that textures pass seamlessly from one to the other. A murky prelude is followed by a typically dark, threatening Cortège and a scherzo-like Etude that climaxes in snarling exchanges between organ and orchestra, but the work's centre of gravity is placed in the final Chaconne. Even here, though, there's more generalised atmosphere than memorable content, and the dense harmonic curtains hang heavily right to the final chord.
Znaider had taken over Nelsons's programme unchanged, and so followed the very polished account of the Ruders with another symphony, Bruckner's Seventh. That was a brisk, pliable performance, perhaps a bit too streamlined, but never overstudied or too monumental even in the great slow movement. It was superbly played: the sound world, very much Bruckner's own for all its Wagnerian debts, was glowingly realised.
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