Illuminating Singing of Britten by Bostridge

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Elgar, Britten: Ian Bostridge (tenor) City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Michael Seal (conductor) Symphony Hall, Birmingham 6.3.2013. (CT)

Elgar: In the South (Alassio) Op. 50
Britten: Les Illuminations
Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings Op. 29
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma) Op. 36

Walking past the majestic pillared elevations of Birmingham’s Town Hall just prior to the commencement of this concert, it quickly became obvious that there were two musical events vying for the mid-week limelight.

With Steve Reich in town for a performance of his new work Radio Rewrite (the piece had been premiered the previous night in London’s Royal Festival Hall) Birmingham’s Town Hall was sold out and thronging with an audience of largely bright young things (Steve Reich might have known them as groupies in his younger days in hip New York) with several waving home made banners emblazoned with hearts and declarations of ‘We Love You Stevie’.

It was quite a reception for the master of minimalism who at seventy six years of age, albeit looking a good ten years younger, still retains his cult following; and a young one at that.

In somewhat depressing contrast, Symphony Hall was barely a third full for a concert by Michael Seal and the CBSO that featured a highly appealing programme with an utterly spellbinding performance of Britten’s Les Illuminations at its heart, sung with compelling and at times theatrical brilliance by Ian Bostridge.

The concert got off to a bracing opening with Elgar’s In the South, a work that in the right hands, never loses its sense of wonder. Elgar’s affectionate yet vibrant portrait of the Italian coastline and landscape, as inspired by his 1903 holiday in the small resort of Alassio, was captured in glorious colour by Michael Seal and the CBSO, the changing scenery and vistas of the land and seascapes painted in bold colours by the strings with swelling, sonorous support from a glowing brass section.

From the leaping exhilarating horns at the opening to the wide, dramatic strides of the passage inspired by Elgar’s first sight of a Roman aqueduct, this was a performance of glorious and vivid contrasts, with the gentle simplicity of the Canto Popolare sung out beautifully on solo viola by Christopher Yates, residing at the heart of a work that is so much more than the ‘concert overture’ of its title.

With the CBSO’s celebration of the Britten centenary being an integral feature of its 2013 concert season in Birmingham, the programme was bolstered by compelling performances of two very different works.

It is impossible to listen to Ian Bostridge without becoming totally absorbed in the visual elements of his performance and so proved to be the case in his spellbinding performance of Britten’s Rimbaud cycle, Les Illuminations.

Bostridge’s gangling, lean frame was at times bent backwards, at other times crouched forward in praying mantis like fashion and at others utterly nonchalant with hands thrust deeply into pockets as he enunciated Rimbaud’s often erotically charged verse with crystalline clarity and astonishing intensity.

The contribution of the strings of the CBSO, from the trumpet like Fanfare of the opening to the eerie and fleeting Phrase and the manic energy of Villes was shaped and balanced to perfection by Michael Seal, with Bostridge’s sensitivity to timbre aiding gloriously nuanced textures as his voice melded with the strings in a sensuous and highly charged evocation of Being Beauteous. It is difficult to imagine the genius of Britten’s exhilarating song cycle being conveyed with greater empathy and artistry than was the case here.

Written in 1943 for the tenth anniversary concert of the Boyd Neel Orchestra, the ensemble that had been largely responsible for the then twenty four year old Britten being thrust into the public spotlight following its commissioning of the Frank Bridge Variations in 1937, Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings initially surprises in the dark tones of its opening Prelude. With each of the eighteen string parts having originally been tailored to the individual players in Louis Boyd Neel’s hand picked band, Michael Seal and the CBSO strings found the almost Shostakovichian intensity of the sinuous Prelude in compelling fashion, with the ebullient and technically masterful Fugue emerging in stark and celebratory contrast. At only nine minutes, the Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings might be something of a miniature in duration but it was here shown to pack a significant musical punch into its short time span.

There is a danger that the sheer familiarity of Elgar’s Enigma Variations can occasionally tarnish its appeal in anything but a performance of the highest quality and in this respect at least, Elgar’s early masterpiece proved to be the low point of an otherwise absorbing concert.

There were moments when the sheer integrity of the music burst forth in radiant fashion but there were also variations that hinted at an orchestra playing within itself, as in Variation XI (G.R.S.) where Dan the bulldog could have been a touch more robust as he rolled into the River Wye. In contrast however, the perfectly judged tempo of Nimrod elicited playing of deeply moving sincerity from Michael Seal and the orchestra, the mood being one of deeply felt expression that resolutely resisted resorting to cloying sentimentality whilst the Finale blazed with a majesty that had sometimes been missing earlier in the performance.

As those that had been unsuccessful in getting a return ticket for the Steve Reich concert filed away from the Town Hall, a five minute walk to Symphony Hall might just have found them a new hero in Ian Bostridge. His performance of Les Illuminations made an indelible impression on a modest but eager Symphony Hall audience.

Christopher Thomas