Presenter: John Brunning
Conductor: Michael Seal
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Once again, The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), in its guise as Classic FM’s Orchestra in the Midlands, presents an evening of light classics, this time inspired by ‘smooth classics’ as broadcast by tonight’s presenter, John Brunning in his daily Smooth Classics at Seven programme.
So what is a ‘smooth classic’? Richard Bratby’s programme notes suggest that ‘Music has always been about relaxation’, so maybe we mean relaxing classics, music you can enjoy at the end of a long day as you unwind. And that is certainly the character of much of tonight’s programme – one can imagine sitting with eyes half-closed as the lush strings of the CBSO playing, for example, Barber’s Adagio for Strings wash over one.
Looking at the programme, it’s obvious that smooth and relaxing also seem to be synonymous with the use of flowing strings and rippling harps, as in the opening piece, The Nutcracker: Pas de Deux from Tchaikovsky. With the orchestra bathed in rich warm light reminiscent of a summer evening, one is transported to an idyllic countryside. Debussy’s Clair de Lune with all its yearning continues the theme before we are presented with the first of two pieces to include leader of the orchestra, Zoë Beyers, as soloist. This is the second movement of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, the first piece to top Classic FM’s top 100, and played with magnificent expression by Beyers. She returns after the interval with Massenet’s Méditation from Thaïs. Throughout this piece, Beyer’s phrasing is quite sublime, supported, once more, by a rippling harp.
Conductor, Michael Seal, is animated and authoritative, occasionally dispensing with his baton, for example, for Bach’s Air from Suite No. 3, in order to draw even more expression from the players. At other times, for example in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, he fairly dances himself.
Brunning, our host, has a measured approach, but his appearance of omniscience is maybe affected by his reliance on notes for his links leading to occasional hesitations.
One shouldn’t complain when something ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ as this performance does. The programme is indeed smooth and relaxing and, as ever, played magnificently by the CBSO, especially the strings who take the lion’s share of the playing. Indeed, many of the brass section first appear on stage at the end of the first half having been represented mainly by horns up until then. And this is the weakness in tonight’s concert – there just isn’t enough light and shade in the programme. By the time the familiar notes of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King are played just before the interval, we are crying out for a bit of clash and clatter, some climaxes and heavy percussion. In fairness, Grieg does, of course, deliver in spades on this front!
In the second half, too, we are aching for some contrast, finally delivered by the Polovtsian Dances that varies in mood from reflective to playful and provides a welcome uplift prior to our leaving the hall, followed by an encore of Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, again played superbly.
Overall, an evening of lush music, once again filling Symphony Hall melodiously and showing off the supreme musicianship of the CBSO, but with programming that, on this occasion, slightly misses the mark.
Reviewed on 20 October 2017 | Image: Contributed