The Kensington Symphony Orchestra regularly features guest conductors, and this concert saw Michael Seal at the helm. Associate Conductor of the CBSO, Seal has never shirked a challenge as was evident in this performance of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.
It took a little while to get going. Relatively swift but never impassive, the Allegro moderato was at its most engrossing across a steadily cumulative development; after which, the reprise felt slightly matter of fact – the coda’s stark contrasts between terror and resignation a touch literal. The outer sections of the Scherzo found the right balance between weight and impetus (no inhibiting ritardandos at the close of each paragraph), though even finer was a Trio whose underlying lilt offset any hint of stolidity as can make this appear a self-contained interlude.
Not for the first time in this piece, the performance really hit its stride in the Adagio. So often this loses shape or direction as it unfolds, but Seal was mindful to keep its constituent sections in focus such that its climaxes never pre-empted each other – abetted by a seamless continuity at the point where Bruckner excises transitional material (this being the revised version of the score as edited by Leopold Nowak) on the way to a culmination whose twin cymbal clashes capped the movement in impressive fashion. Perhaps the coda could have evinced even more gravitas, but Seal maintained momentum going into a Finale whose opening chorale surged forward irresistibly. Ensemble may have faltered on occasion, though this formally complex movement never risked discursiveness – Seal shaping its subsequent themes with no mean subtlety, while ensuring what can seem a prolix development never became distended. Nor did the lengthy approach to the coda hang fire; this latter emerging as a peroration the more encompassing for its succinctness as Bruckner reconciles his themes in mesmeric fashion.
Bruckner Eight is not new to the KSO’s repertoire (memory recalls an account with Russell Keable two decades ago), but it is a tough challenge as was met head on here. Hopefully Seal will return to an orchestra that he enjoys evident rapport.