Elgar’s Enigma Variations

ThumbnailPure Emotion

Saturday 13th December 2014 at 7.00pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Andrew Litton  conductor
James Ehnes  violin

Britten: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge 27′
Walton: Violin Concerto 28′ Watch on YouTube

Elgar: Engima Variations 31′
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James Ehnes’ encore – JS Bach – Sonato No.3 Final movement

Elgar dedicated his Enigma Variations to “my friends pictured within”, and if all you know of them is Nimrod, you’re about to meet some of the most engaging characters in British music. Guest conductor Andrew Litton begins with Britten’s playful salute to a well-loved teacher, and James Ehnes scales the gleaming heights of Walton’s dazzling Art Deco violin concerto.

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post (for Wednesday’s matinee of same programme)

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…     “Whatever thoughts of the Brahms were in his head, Ehnes delivered a wonderfully poignant, soul-searching account of the Walton, his rich, full tones seamlessly singing with resigned regret (despite a waspish, brilliantly-bowed attempt at heady escapism), and Litton and the CBSO reciprocated with arching phrasing and piquant interjections.

What should have opened the concert then followed, Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge the showcase for a CBSO string section on top form, adept in the young composer’s brilliant compendium of styles and techniques.

Britten’s musical characters were followed by the human characters of Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Litton’s reading was refreshingly unsentimental (thank you for such an honest, unaggrandised Nimrod) but always tender.”     …



Review by Rian Evans, Guardian (for Wednesday’s matinee of same programme)

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…     “Ehnes’s fearless response to both works spoke for itself. The fine balance of Walton’s reflective lyricism and its capricious displays of technique were handled with flair, and the tone that Ehnes produced high on the E string lent a sweetness to the music too often lost in more effortful performances. Litton’s instinct for the jazzy element in Walton’s score added to the scintillating effect.

The CBSO string players’ admiration of Ehnes seemed to fire them up for Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, which had been moved to later in the programme so as to allow Ehnes a fast getaway. They played with great elan.”     …

MacMillan’s St Luke Passion


Thursday 4th December 2014 at 7.30pm

Symphony Hall, Birmingham +44 (0)121 345 0600

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

James MacMillan  conductor
Toby Spence  tenor
Richard Watkins  horn
CBSO Chorus  
CBSO Youth Chorus  

Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings 26′
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MacMillan: St Luke Passion (UK premiere) 73′ Watch on YouTube

James MacMillan has been called the greatest British composer since Britten, and his music is urgent, melodious, and burning to communicate. The UK premiere of his St Luke Passion – co-commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the CBSO Chorus – is a major event, and with the composer himself conducting our famous choruses, this is a chance to experience musical history in the making.


Review by Rian Evans, Guardian:

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…     “MacMillan sets the Lucan gospel in the English of the Catholic version but, unusually, he dispenses with soloists and indeed with the role of the evangelist. Instead, he gives the words of the gospel to the full chorus, and the words of Christ to young voices, sung here by the remarkable CBSO youth chorus. Their freshness and purity of sound was symbolic both of the sacrificial lamb of God and of the hope of the Christian gospel.

The simplicity of the word-setting, sometimes just monodic, and the clarity of MacMillan’s choral writing, notably in the unaccompanied sections, ensured a touching directness of expression. The instrumentation – small orchestra with double wind – also realised some striking effects, notably in the brass and timpani, with their occasional resonances of Verdi and Britten, and the Messiaen-like organ outbursts. Duetting oboes also recalled Bach’s passions, as did the emerging strain of the chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden towards the end.

Like their younger counterparts, the CBSO chorus sang out beautifully.”


Review by John Quinn, MusicWeb, SeenandHeard:

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…     “One very interesting feature of this score is that the words of Christ are sung by a children’s choir, often singing in unison but sometimes in up to three parts. MacMillan explains that he took this step because he wanted to “examine [Christ’s] otherness, sanctity and mystery. Employing a children’s choir grants a measure of innocence to Christ as the sacrificial lamb.” I thought this approach worked extremely well and the confidence, discipline, freshness of tone, commitment and maturity with which the young singers of the CBSO Youth Chorus carried out this testing assignment is beyond praise. Clearly Julian Wilkins, who played the crucial organ part in this performance, had trained them scrupulously, not just in the notes but in the spirit of the music

The adult choir carries the main burden of the music and I wondered how this would work in practice as compared to the more conventional approach of having a soloist narrator. I think MacMillan’s decision was completely vindicated, not least because, shrewdly, he varies the choral textures. So some passages are sung by either male or female voices – or a section of the respective voices, such as the tenors – while elsewhere the full choir is deployed, sometimes singing homophonically and at others in more complex polyphony. The music, while far from impossible, I judge, is by no means easy and there are a number of passages where the need for rhythmic precision is especially demanding. On just one occasion, when telling of how Simon of Cyrene was obliged to help carry the cross, the tenors were not quite unanimous in articulating the difficult rhythms but this was an isolated blemish in what was a hugely impressive performance by the CBSO Chorus. Trained as usual by Simon Halsey, the choir seemed to be in complete command of the music and they sang with great commitment as well as accomplishment. In short, this was a typical CBSO Chorus performance.”     …


Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

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…      “Under the composer’s fluent and encouraging direction, Simon Halsey’s chorus sang with all its legendary attack, projection and clarity of diction, well-balanced and controlled, taut with urgency, and partnered by a CBSO which did full justice to the resourceful imaginativeness of MacMillan’s modest scoring.

The 73-minute work (what a convenient length for a CD!) is sure in its dramatic pacing, and the restless stirrings in the orchestral bass line as Christ ascends into heaven are particularly effective, underpinning the ancient chant melody which the Chorus intones.”     …