A neat symmetry shaped last Wednesday’s concert (two composers with a brace of minor and major works apiece), but the contrasts could not have been greater.
Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture and Violin Concerto made up the first half, a predictable enough start you might think (as was the read-through given to the overture by the CBSO and associate conductor Michael Seal), although what came afterwards was definitely not. Indeed, one wonders if the near-capacity audience (no doubt attracted by the ‘Tasmin Little Plays Beethoven’ tag) expected to hear the concerto interpreted in such an original way.
Some might have been anticipating a virtuoso display, but Little shunned muscular heroics – or made them so effortless as to appear non existent – to focus on Beethoven the poet. Her ruminative and often daringly quiet playing brought a songs-without-words lyricism and sweetness to the melodies, and gave even the most workmanlike passagework a tensile sense of purpose. Such an intimate, ensemble approach clearly found favour with Seal and his equally sympathetic colleagues, who responded with wonderful sensitivity. Some may not have approved, but as an example of chamber music writ large it could not be faulted.
On a totally different scale neither could Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4. We can forget the short Titanic tribute which preceded it (as Nielsen himself later tried to) but The Inextinguishable is one of those remarkable symphonies that once heard – I can still recall the CBSO’s ground-breaking first performance under Harold Gray – is never forgotten.
Michael Seal, however, took it to a new level of blistering energy, throwing out the opening motifs and themes like a challenging musical jigsaw. In every respect this was a stunningly exciting performance: Seal never let the tension flag for a moment, and all sections of the orchestra responded brilliantly, with crisp woodwind and horns in the Allegretto, a slow movement made even more unsettling by the CBSO’s passionately searing strings, and a finale in which the warring antiphonal timpani battered us into long-awaited cathartic release. Marvellous.