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Bostridge, CBSO, Seal, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - large and live | reviews, news & interviews

Bostridge, CBSO, Seal, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - large and live

Bostridge, CBSO, Seal, Symphony Hall Birmingham review - large and live

Malcolm Arnold's Fifth Symphony shoots for the stars in a programme of British rarities

Back in the big time: the socially distanced CBSO on stage at Symphony Hall in May 2021Hannah Blake-Fathers

The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra believes that its current post-lockdown summer series features the largest orchestra currently performing live in the UK. It’s not an easy claim to verify, and the full string section certainly wasn’t on stage for this matinee performance under the orchestra’s associate conductor Michael Seal.

What’s clear though, is that the platform at Symphony Hall, stripped of risers and choirstalls, offers ample space for a large orchestra that’s socially distanced but doesn’t sound like it. The Hall’s pristine acoustic isn’t suited to every kind of music, but for large orchestral scores, under current circumstances it seems ideal, allowing a clarity, an immediacy and a precision that is practically indistinguishable from the Old Normal – at least, if you keep your eyes closed.

So there was an almost physical depth and presence to the huge, translucent sheets of string tone that Seal deployed in Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne. This is the changeling half sister of Britten’s Serenade: a rich, strange garland of verses by poets ranging from Keats to Tennyson, all preoccupied with dream states and scored for a handful of obligato wind, brass and percussion instruments, plus strings. A chamber ensemble is implied, and I’ve never seen it done with more than a handful of players: certainly not with a string section (it looked like around 40 players) as large as this.

Ian Bostridge - photo by Sim Canetty-ClarkeIt worked superbly, the added bulk of sound giving an eerie, overcast shimmer to Britten’s vast, becalmed vistas, and a satisfying bite to his sudden flashes of terror or wide-eyed joy. Up front, Ian Bostridge (pictured right) was the soloist, and Bostridge never does anything as straightforward as merely sing. He lost himself in the huge misty spaces between keening violins and velvet basses: flattening his tone into a sinister snarl, blanching it to a ghostly echo, or letting fly with brazen tenor fanfares in the sequence where Britten evokes Tennyson’s Kraken. That he could audibly tint and shape words almost by the syllable is testimony to Seal’s control over that big string section – a control which, paradoxically, allowed the other players to handle their musical illustrations and interjections with an improvisatory vividness: a glaucous, coiling bassoon; silvery thunder from the timpani, and harp flurries that sounded like spindrift in the moonlight.

The second part of this shortened concert (a planned opener of Bax’s Tintagel fell victim to Covid-era running times) comprised Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony: now 60 years old, as Seal reminded us in a brief spoken introduction (and it’s been the best part of half a century since the composer conducted the CBSO in a now-classic recording). Orchestration as brilliant as Arnold’s doesn’t need much help, but Seal – a former orchestral violinist – took nothing for granted in a performance that took this most compelling of modern British symphonies and made it gleam. The cataclysmic brass eruptions, the glistening harp and bell ostinati, and the cymbal topped sunbursts came through exactly as brilliantly as you’d hope. More surprising were the details revealed by Seal’s command of texture and balance: violin phrases arcing anxiously out of the tumult, or a celesta shimmering within a muffled string chord, like embers glimpsed through ashes.

Perhaps that makes it sound like a glorified concerto for orchestra. In fact, Seal made a powerful a case for this symphony, both as tautly-argued musical structure and compelling (and tragic) emotional narrative. The first movement was properly tempestuoso, and the great melody of the slow movement played out in an uneasy, fragile stillness which belied Arnold’s own self-mocking, defensive comment (he knew what to expect from the critics at that stage in the game) that ‘the composer is unable to distinguish between sentiment and sentimentality’. The final collapse, accordingly, carried its full emotional weight, and Seal brought the symphony to rest without point-making or exaggeration: the logical, and inevitable conclusion of a tragedy that had been prefigured from the opening bars. Sakari Oramo (another former orchestral violinist) gives Arnold’s Fifth its (belated) Proms premiere in August; meanwhile this was powerful and intelligent advocacy for a symphony whose time might finally have arrived.

Comments

How does this work? This writer used to work for the CBSO; was commissioned by them to write a history of the orchestra; spends lots of time engaged in idle chit-chat on social media with the conductor he's reviewing. So how can he possibly be objective? This isn't journalism or criticism worthy of the name, it's PR on behalf of his mates.

Hello - thank you for your interest. I don't believe we've met, but I think, in the first instance, that your query is best answered by the editors of this site - who are well aware of my past employment history (something that is a matter of public record) when they asked me to cover these concerts, and are as well qualified as any to judge my professional integrity (which you appear to question). I think we're all too well aware of how the internet works for me to take your comment unduly personally - I can only say that I tried to give an honest and (hopefully) vivid account of what I heard. Was I predisposed in its favour? I don't set out to review concerts that I expect to be mediocre or uninteresting. If they turn out to be so, however, I say as much. Might I ask, were you at the performance? If so, with what specific aspects of the review do you disagree? A couple of other observations: firstly, in the era of social media every professional critic has dealings (friendly or otherwise) with the artists they review. As much as anything, it's basic courtesy. To imply that this necessarily affects their professional judgement is, at best, cynical. Were Michael Kennedy's reviews of the Halle and RLPO or are Richard Morrison's reviews of the LSO any less credible because of their close and lengthy relationships with these organisations? Secondly: to assume that having been an employee of an organisation automatically predisposes you in that organisation's favour suggests a truly heroic level of idealism. I wish (genuinely) that it was so simple. And thirdly: without a basic assumption of shared good faith between writer and reader any opinion is valueless. I am clear about my standpoint and write in good faith: you choose not to believe that, which is, of course, your prerogative. But if you sincerely believe that any writing about the arts, by any writer, is - or is capable of being - "objective", I fear you are doomed to repeated and lifelong disappointment. No professional critic would make any such claim.

What I feel Mr Bell needs to understand is that none of us in the classical music.opera line makes his or her living by criticism alone (nor is it desirable - you soon burn out if all you do is that). We have connections with orchestras and opera companies through programme notes; we meet and like artists we interview - or, in my present case, are indebted to their generosity in appearing in Zoom music appreciation classes/lectures. I have what I'd call professional friendships all stemming from initial admiration of the artists concerned. I'm not doind a friend a favour. I know that these performers will most likely never fall below a level of excellence, but at the same time no-one can interpret everything well, so if there's a disparity between what I expect to hear in a certain composer's work and the artist's view - or that of a director who doesn't seem to me to express the opera in question clearly, to tell the story - then I have written so, and always shall. If the artist has too fragile an ego to accept criticism from a well-wisher, then that's too bad.

There are several yarsticks here - Richard is one of our best writers, as Sebastian observes; this of all CBSO concerts might not have been covered at all otherwise, and everyone needs to know about Arnold's Fifth Symphony (as well as at least two others). So whatever you think, the gains outweigh any negatives. I always leave it up to writers, morevoer, to give a disclaimer if they wish, but it's up to them.

Oh Dear!! I cannot but feel rather sorry for David Bell who, I suggest, was not in the audience for either oerformance of the CBSO concert on Wednesday 13 June. I attended the matinee performance and my reaction is very close to that of Richard Bratby. The response of the audience to both Britten's Nocturne and Malcolm Arnold's Symphony No. 5 would also strongly suggest that they too very much enjoyed both works. For Mr Bell's benefit I should declare that I know Richard Bratby and consider him not only a well respected critic but also an honest one and to suggest otherwise is very wide of the mark.

How does this work? Good question. 

"Velvet basses". "A glaucous, coiling bassoon". Richard Bratby's crazily vivid writing is always a joy to read. That's how it works for me. 

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