CBSO Britten, Arnold review



Symphony Hall ****

One of the enjoyable details of the CBSO's sadly-mauled Centenary season has been its sense of heritage – of revisiting, and reclaiming, music with which the orchestra has a historic connection. Sir Malcolm Arnold recorded his Fifth Symphony with the CBSO in 1973. The symphony, at that point, was twelve years old, while the CBSO was starting to show the benefits of Louis Frémaux's energetic orchestra-building.

But while any recording of a major work by its composer has a historic value, I doubt either Frémaux or Arnold would have quite believed the quality of the playing or the conviction of the interpretation that the symphony received under Michael Seal this afternoon. The CBSO was playing in its socially-distanced configuration, with a slightly reduced string section: still, as with all the concerts so far in this short post-lockdown summer season, it's clear that Symphony Hall can take it. Arnold's gleaming orchestral colours and earworm melodies (the opening of the slow movement is one for the ages) came across as large as life; while Seal's taut, urgent tempos and sense of narrative made sure that this jet-age streamliner of a symphony delivered its full, troubling emotional payload.

Pre-Covid, the plan had been to open this concert with Bax's Tintagel; in the event, all that remained was Britten's Nocturne – a haunted fever-dream of a song cycle, sung by Ian Bostridge with the understated theatricality and (slightly overstated) attention to the shape and meaning of the text that we've come to expect from him. But Britten thrives on atmosphere, and with Seal deploying great translucent sheets of string tone, the CBSO's wind and brass players (plus harpist Katherine Thomas and timpanist Matthew Hardy) had the time of their lives with the Nocturne's virtuosic obligato lines: keening, gurgling, fluttering, and generally getting into the wild, weird spirit of the thing. As well they might.

Richard Bratby


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