Michael Seal has been presiding over numerous of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s most worthwhile concerts since he was made Associate Conductor some four years ago, and this programme entitled “American Classics” was assuredly no exception.
Written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s centenary, Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento (1980) is a breviary of the composer’s styles across four decades, and while the opening ‘Sennets and Tuckets’ or the ‘Samba’ and ‘Turkey Trot’ (stylishly) re-tread familiar ground, the winsome ‘Waltz’ and plangent ‘Mazurka’ offer unexpected delights; while the speculative ‘Sphinxes’ segueing into ‘Blues’ feels hardly less arresting than the hieratic ‘In Memoriam’ that heads into the final ‘March (The BSO Forever)’, with its teasing allusions and uproarious Bostonian humour.
Whereas Bernstein recollects with not a little nostalgia, George Gershwin impulsively confronts the ‘present’ in his Piano Concerto (1925). For all its evident bravura, this is a tricky work to bring off – not least the opening Allegro whose fantasia-like construction can easily seem piecemeal. Enjoying audible rapport with the CBSO, Freddy Kempf knitted its various sections together convincingly – though this performance, as with the work itself, was at its best in the Adagio; its trumpet theme plaintively phrased by Jonathan Holland, with Kempf maintaining tension admirably in the brief central cadenza prior to an eloquent climax. He made the most of the finale’s review of earlier ideas as part of its agitated progress, and if the peroration seemed a mite underwhelming, the breezy coda did not lack for panache.
After the interval, a welcome hearing (the first-ever in Birmingham?) for Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp of 1952. The composer’s most far-reaching attempt to recalibrate his innate late-Romanticism for the austere post-war era, it is a work fairly riven with contradiction for all that its ambition cannot be doubted. Seal had the measure of the initial Moderato with its bracing deployment of piano and percussion (not the only instance where Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony acts as a template), and purposeful interplay of its respectively ominous, yearning and poignant main themes. The quixotic Scherzo needed a little more agility for its acute contrasts in harmony and texture fully to register, but the Adagio was finely handled in terms of sombre emotions which reach a climax of tragic and consciously Mahlerian import prior to the resigned close.
After this, the Finale can all too easily seem an anti-climax – its dutiful recycling of previous themes, allied to a rather forced jollity and episodic structure, failing to cap the whole piece with the required conviction. A recent Proms performance, under John Storgårds, adopted a stoical manner that at least avoided undue flippancy, and if Seal favoured a more overtly rumbustious approach, he managed to guide the movement through to a speculative recalling of the work’s opening and then endowed the final bars with a defiance that at least offset their wanton affirmation.
A work all too evidently out of its time or one which seeks to reclaims earlier certainties for a later era? Over half a century on and Korngold’s Symphony continues to intrigue rather more than it satisfies, though its sincerity can hardly be doubted after so responsive a reading as this.