CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

Did the CBSO’s chief executive Emma Stenning attend this concert? One hopes so because she would have been able to see the early fruits of the silliest of her new innovations. The orchestra and soloist Ian Bostridge were about a quarter of the way through Britten’s ‘Les Illuminations’ when the tenor motioned to conductor Gergely Madaras, raised his hand and halted the performance. He addressed a small group in the audience who had been filming him on their mobile phones. “Their lights are shining directly in my eyes – it’s very distracting," he said. "Would you please put your phones down.” A performance by one of the finest British singers of the last fifty years, and a world-renowned interpreter of Britten, was interrupted by a handful of intellectually challenged mobile-obsessed dimwits. Their antics are positively encouraged by the orchestra’s administrators who print this in the concert programme: “We are very happy for you to take photographs and short video clips at our concerts, but please refrain from recording the whole performance. We'd love you to share them with us @TheCBSO.” Perhaps Stenning will castigate Bostridge for encroaching on the liberty of the officially-sanctioned mobile movie makers? One feels that anything is possible under this barmy new dispensation.

That hiatus apart this was a really engaging performance of Britten’s song cycle where in the opening ‘Fanfare’ Bostridge proclaimed that, “I alone hold the key to this savage parade”. So he did, opening the doors to a succession of the poet Rimbaud’s hallucinatory, cryptic visions. The work demands immense versatility from the soloist – a series of brief sharply etched character roles – with Bostridge in turn languorous, epicene, conspiratorial, delirious and declamatory. For a tall slender reed of a man he can be surprisingly stentorian. Britten uses the string orchestra as musical partners not mere accompanists as writes dazzling for them – as he did in the Frank Bridge variations – and the CBSO seized their opportunities. Particularly succulent was a passage where the leader serenaded, accompanied by cellos strummed like guitars and finger-plucked basses.

The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s music falls into three categories: Apocalyptic as in the impressively monumental 'Catamorphosis' given its UK premiere by the CBSO in 2022; Atmospheric, suitable soundtracks for the ‘Alien’ film franchise, like ‘Metacosmos’ heard here in 2023; Noodling, where nothing happens very slowly – sadly ‘Dreaming’ was a prime example of this. String susurrations, percussion stroked and banged and a closing climactic moment when Eduardo Vassallo scraped and tapped on his cello. He got a round of applause for that which indicates how exciting the previous sixteen minutes were.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1 ‘Winter Daydreams’ was once neglected but has become more popular in recent years. There have been fine CBSO performances under Andris Nelsons and Ben Gernon but this one from Madaras was possibly the best. It's a youthful work, brimming over with enthusiasm, profligate with themes, occasionally prolix and in need of nips and tucks. But with the CBSO in sparkling form urged on by Madaras its shortcomings were overlooked and its virtues displayed: the opening winter landscape frozen as if by a magic spell; the Adagio’s gorgeous long-breathed melody; the scherzo’s dances looking forward to the great ballets. Best of all was the finale, the theme ponderously slow and sepulchral in the basses, then speeded up and embracing the orchestral in full cry. The bass drum and cymbals added a brazen, possibly vulgar touch, but I found it utterly irresistible.

Norman Stinchcombe

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