CBSO – LIVE at the Centre

A Toast to the Twenties: Octets of the 20s

Octandre (1923)*
Concertino (1928)
My Thoughts Fly In At Your Window (2020)* [CBSO Centenary Commission: World Premiere]
Two Pieces, Op.11 (1924-5)

Members of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Michael Seal*

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 October, 2020
Venue: CBSO Centre, Birmingham

Few attending the CBSO’s concert on March 10th could have imagined waiting until October 16th for its ensuing live performance. In the event, a ‘socially distanced’ audience at CBSO Centre witnessed this engaging sequence of octets for wind, strings and combinations thereof.

The programme could not have had a more bracing start than Octandre, one of several works with which Edgard Varèse futurized the course of Western music in the aftermath of the First World War. Its three continuous movements abound in often harsh while always fastidiously balanced timbres, Michael Seal ensuring that the ricocheting exchanges of its central section was as vividly projected as the accumulating activity of those either side – the latter building to one of the composer’s favoured chorale-like gestures for what was a powerful apotheosis.

Although he ended his career as an internationally recognised conductor, Eugene Goossens achieved early recognition as a composer with works such as this Concertino. Better known in its guise for string orchestra, the octet original arguably conveys more of those bracingly astringent harmonies as denote influences – well absorbed – from Stravinsky and Hindemith. This account duly made the most of its trenchant outer movements as well as bringing out the ruminative inwardness of a central Andante, whose folk inflections add greatly to its appeal.

Laudable that the first opportunity was taken to schedule the CBSO’s Centenary Commission from Grace-Evangeline Mason as postponed from last season. Inspired by the final line of the poem At Night by American author Sara Teasdale, its two continuous movements merge into an effective unity. ‘My thoughts fly in at your window…’ draws from these eight instruments (clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quartet plus double bass) an atmospheric euphony dispersed in ‘…As a flock of wild birds’ with its evocative arpeggiations against diaphanous harmonies.

Back to string octet (or double quartet) for the Two Pieces where the teenage Shostakovich set out his artistic intentions in unequivocal fashion. Written either side of his seminal First Symphony, the ‘Prelude’ abounds in volatile emotions while the ‘Scherzo’ exudes a coursing energy and caustic dissonance that points unerringly to the works following it. An intended fugue never progressed beyond sketches, but the work as it stands constitutes a formidable duality into whose combative spirit the CBSO musicians entered with unstinting conviction.

As did their woodwind and brass colleagues in the Octet with which Stravinsky committed himself to a neo-classical aesthetic over the next three decades. Alternately ingratiating and strident, the ‘Sinfonia’ sets out priorities which the ‘Tema con variazioni’ elaborates in more diverse and ambivalent terms; not least in a coda, winsomely realised here, that provides the transition into a ‘Finale’ whose technical dexterity ultimately yields to the jazzy insouciance of the closing bars – thereby setting the seal on this most undogmatic of musical manifestos.

A delightful conclusion to a performance which those attending might have wondered when it would happen. Certainly, the CBSO players looked not a little relieved to be back in action, as will doubtless hold true for future instalments of what promises to be an unmissable series.

The next recital on October 23rd features music for brass by Arnold, Bliss, Holst and Ireland

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