This orchestra had the time of their lives

This orchestra had the time of their lives


norman lebrecht

June 09, 2021

Our latest review from the CBSO’s extended centennial season, contributed by the orchestra’s learned historian, Richard Bratby:

CBSO / Seal / Bostridge

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 (pictured) 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.

Slippedisc has reviewed every concert in the CBSO’s centenary season, many of them unnoticed by general media. We are expanding our review capacity and can do the same for you when concerts reopen. Contact us to discuss.


  • Corno di Caccia says:

    Great to hear and read about a performance of a Malcolm Arnold Symphony, as well as the account of that aforementioned recording. I think all british orchestras should play far more british music than they do. I always look forward to seeing an increase in programmed british music in each BBC Proms season that comes along but am always disappointed by the sheer lack of it each year. Now that conductors like Boult, Handley and Hickox are no longer with us, we need a new champion of this glorious home-grown output to emerge. There is so much british music by both male and female composers of the past that remain unperformed these days.
    Malcolm Arnold’s music is well documented in recordings but his symphonies and other works – except his sets of orchestral dances that appear in concert programmes from time to time – seem to be sadly neglected, as with those by Arnold Bax, William Alwyn, Edmund Rubbra and Granville Bantock, to name but a few. Well done to the CBSO for performing this work as part of its seriously hampered centenary celebrations.
    I was lucky enough to meet Malcolm – and play for him – as a young horn player and have always been an advocate of his music. Here’s hoping, as the centenary of his birth on November 19th of this year approaches, we hear more of this great composer’s music this year.

    • Saxon says:

      Er…the music isn’t played much because it struggles to sell tickets. This concert was only about half-full.

  • Philip Moores says:

    I was there too Richard and agree it was a super concert. Live music again! I confess to being surprised that more seats had not been sold. It looked like only 300-400 of us were there, about 50% of the current Symphony Hall unsocially distanced capacity?

  • Michael Turner (conductor) says:

    The CBSO’s recording referred to is superb. I’m sorry to have missed the concert as I firmly believe No.5 to be a great British symphony and, perhaps, the best of Arnold’s symphonic output.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    What does CBSO stand for?

  • Gustavo says:

    Today, Sir Malcolm Arnold would have been 100.

    No news.