Ian Bostridge (tenor), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)
Britten Nocturne Op.60 (1958)
Arnold Symphony no.5 Op.74 (1961)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 9 June 2pm
Written by Richard Whitehouse
It may have been centred on ‘England’s dreaming’, but there is surely a future for such astute juxtapositions of works by British composers as that heard in this latest concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; two pieces separated by just three years but poles apart stylistically.
The fourth and last of Britten’s orchestral song-cycles, Nocturne is a sequence with emphasis very much on the cyclical aspect. Its eight settings each features an obbligato instrument heard alongside string orchestra, the tenor adopting a flexible arioso manner with which to deliver a range of texts across centuries of English poetry. After a somnolent initial setting of Shelley – strings introducing a spectral rhythmic figure acting as a ritornello across the work – the bassoon emerges for an ominous setting of Tennyson, then the harp for a jejune rendering of Coleridge.
Notably restrained with his characterization thus far, Ian Bostridge upped the expressive ante when horn came to the fore in an evocative treatment of Middleton; the more so as timpani entered for Wordsworth’s troubled verses on the aftermath of revolution. Accrued tension spilled over to a plangent setting of Owen with cor anglais in attendance, then flute and clarinet joined the voice in a rapt take on Keats. All seven instruments duly reappeared for the final setting of Shakespeare – complementing tenor and strings when they arrived at a barely tangible repose.
Throughout, Michael Seal was typically alert and sensitive in accompaniment – before letting the CBSO off its collective leash for Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. If not the finest of his cycle (which accolade would likely go to the Seventh), the Fifth is the most representative in its disjunct contrasts and fraught emotions – not least in an opening Tempestuoso whose pivoting between stark irony and consoling empathy results in several assaultive climaxes as were fearlessly delivered. In his pointedly succinct note for the premiere, Arnold confessed himself ‘‘unable to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality’’ – a disingenuity that made possible the Andante with its aching main melody and soulful secondary theme which between them engender a baleful culmination before the earlier raptness is fitfully regained.
In his unequalled 1973 recording with this orchestra, Arnold secured playing of transcendent poise from the strings in this movement, but Seal was not far behind in the sustained intensity he drew from the present-day CBSO. Nor was there any lack of sarcasm in the scherzo which follows – wind and brass exchanging gestures either side of the clarinets’ freewheeling tune in the trio, then an abrasively confrontational coda. It remains for the Risoluto finale to attempt a summation with elements from the earlier movements thrown together in an atmosphere of martial volatility; climaxing in a restatement of the slow movement’s main theme resplendent but, ultimately, futile – the music collapsing into a void in which bells echo forlornly against fading lower strings. The CBSO imbued these closing minutes with truly graphic immediacy.
This instructive and cathartic programme brought a (rightly) enthusiastic response from those present. Next week features another British symphony, the first by Thomas Adès, alongside music by Purcell and Mozart for what should be a no less provocative and absorbing concert.
For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website