CBSO Nordic concert reviewed

DISAPPOINTING GRIEG, FABULOUS SIBELIUS


CBSO
Symphony Hall ****

Around 50 years ago I heard Nielsen's Helios overture for the first time, and didn't take to it. I've decided it must have been the conductor's fault, for a couple of times closer to the present day I have heard it conducted by Michael Seal and have really warmed to the piece.
Seal's most recent delivery of it was with the CBSO for Wednesday's very well-attended matinee, and he built a strong image of Nielsen's sun's progress across the sky during the course of one day (let's not get bogged down in astronomical accuracy). Progress was confidently textured, with chattering woodwind and a sturdy fugue, Seal turning what had seemed a static work to me half a century ago into a living organism. Horns were at their noble best.
This all-Nordic programme continued with a disappointing account of the well-loved Grieg Piano Concerto. Clare Hammond was the cool, detached soloist, never really engaging with audience or with an orchestra which sounded uncharacteristically subdued, though the horn and cello solos in the central Adagio were beautifully rendered. In Hammond's favour, she did build a strong first movement cadenza, and brought crisp articulation to the finale, but this remained a largely uninvolving performance.
Unlike the concluding offering, the First Symphony of Sibelius, in which right from Oliver Janes' searching clariner solo over an ominous timpani roll, succeeded by rhetorical strings well-prepared by Seal, we could hear the spirit of the CBSO had returned, bursting into eventual lyrical joyousness.
The many disparate elements in this movement were welded by Seal into a cogent whole. Subsequently he made space for the troll-like scurryings of an otherwise deeply-felt Andante and the Mendelssohnian woodwinds which lighten up the Scherzo's heavy tread.
With many similarities to the finale of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, the finale is basically a symphonic poem in its own right, both episodic and cyclic. Its helter-skelter unison violin descent was brilliantly achieved, moving into a richly sung, glorious, Tchaikovskian melody. At the ending Seal sustained both tension and aspiration, the music leaving us with more questions than it was possible for any of us to answer.
Christopher Morley

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