In concert – Ian Bostridge, CBSO / Michael Seal: Britten Nocturne & Malcolm Arnold Symphony no.5

michael-seal

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

For further information about the next concert of Purcell, Mozart and Adès on Wednesday 16 June, click here, and for more on Sir Malcolm Arnold you can visit the website dedicated to the composer.

Live review – Christopher Maltman & CBSO / Michael Seal perform Mahler, Sibelius & Nielsen

Christopher Maltman (baritone), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 10 April 2019

Sibelius Symphony no.3 in C major Op.52 (1907)
Mahler Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Nielsen Symphony no.5 FS97 (1922)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Photo of Christopher Maltman (c) Pia Clodi

Michael Seal’s concerts as Associate Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony are seldom without interest and tonight’s programme featured a typically bold juxtaposition of Nordic symphonies from the early twentieth century, alongside orchestral songs by Mahler.

Time was when Sibelius’s Symphony no.3 was overlooked even by his keenest advocates, but it has long since become a regular fixture and this account doubtless benefited from the CBSO’s lengthy association with the piece under Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo. That said, Seal had ideas of his own to impart – most evident with the gradually intensifying curve of momentum over the first movement’s development into the reprise, then close alignment of tempo between its successor’s diverse episodes and the lilting main theme so it elided deftly between slow movement and intermezzo. The finale was a slight disappointment – lacking that ominous mystery in its initial ‘scherzo’ phase, with the closing pages a little provisional in their affirmation – though there was no mistaking the unanimity of response on the way.

After the interval, Seal set a notably swift tempo for the first phase in the opening movement of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, though this was never at the expense of ongoing incident or the music’s questing ambivalence. The ensuing Adagio was eloquently projected, building to an apotheosis more powerful for Adrian Spillett’s bravura rendering of its side-drum cadenza – subsiding into a rapt though never somnolent coda where the receding presence of offstage side-drum was ideally offset by Oliver Janes’s limpid clarinet solo at the rear of the platform.

There was nothing anticlimactic about the second movement, its four-sections-in-one design itself amounting to a cohesive entity such as Seal recognized in his taut yet flexible handling of the initial Allegro – tapering away seamlessly into a Presto whose surging energy poses a challenge to ensemble that was confidently met here. The yearning polyphony of the Adagio was finely sustained by strings and woodwind, and if the notoriously tricky final pages felt a shade reined-in, their clinching of the tonal and emotional argument could hardly be gainsaid.

Between these imposing symphonies, a selection from Mahler’s song-sequence Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Christopher Maltman was the persuasive guide through their evocations of life in all its manifestations – beginning with the guileless exchanges of soldier and lover in Der Schwildwache Nachtlied (1892), before bringing a suave nonchalance to the ruminations of Rheinlegendchen (1893) then an ominous sense of dread from amid the sombre fanfares of Wo die schönen Trompeten bläsen (1898). A brief though pertinent interlude was provided by the droll moralizing of Lob des hohen Verstandes (1896), then the selection was rounded off by the stark processional of Der Tamboursg’sell (1901) with its anticipations of the Fifth Symphony then in progress. Maltman once again proved a sensitive and insightful exponent.

Throughout the selection, Seal drew playing of refinement and finesse from the CBSO which seems never to have given this sequence as an integral whole. The orchestra will, however, be returning to Mahler with Ilan Volkov when they perform the Ninth Symphony on April 23rd.

For further information on the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-19 season click here You can read about the forthcoming Mahler Ninth Symphony concert here

Further listening

Unfortunately the concert was not recorded for broadcast, but you can hear a playlist of the pieces heard on Spotify below on leading versions: