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Review: CBSO/Osborne plays Britten's Piano Concerto at Symphony Hall

What an evening of contrasts: Britten serious and light-hearted, Sibelius great and small - and two turkeys.

What an evening of contrasts: Britten serious and light-hearted, Sibelius great and small - and two turkeys.

And for those who attended the pre-concert performance by the Birmingham Conservatoire Symphony Orchestra the best came first.

Under the empowering direction of Michael Seal, this remarkably accomplished orchestra gave an account of Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem that went far beyond being just a free taster. From the broodingly anguished first movement (so like Shostakovich) and blisteringly exciting, demonic Dies irae scherzo, to a finale in which all tensions were released in its consolatory fulfilment, this was a fully formed and terrifically well executed reading.

So was Britten’s Piano Concerto, which provided the centrepiece of the main CBSO concert with conductor Ilan Volkov. This is Britten at his most high-spirited and extrovert (echoes of Prokofiev and Malcolm Arnold abound), who takes no prisoners and forces the soloist – here the wonderfully muscular, no holds-barred Steven Osborne – to jump over many finger shredding hurdles.

Osborne cleared them all with tremendous panache, although there were times when he struggled to be heard over Volkov’s unbridled orchestral support.

But to follow this joyous clatter of a work with a quiet Ravel encore was a grave error of judgement.

The second turkey was John Oswald’s b9 Part One (we were mercifully spared Part Two), a 15-minute farrago of thumbnail extracts from Beethoven’s first five symphonies. It soon exhausted any scintilla of interest, and why the CBSO should have bothered with such scratch-and-patch nonsense is hard to fathom. No wonder the players looked so bored.

With Sibelius (and what a chalk-and-cheese contrast he provided) we were in much more agreeable territory. Volkov began the concert with the little-known tone poem The Bard and ended more substantially with Symphony No. 6.

However, neither was entirely satisfactory.

For both the short-lived opener and this most elegiac of symphonies, Volkov seemed to overlook the allusive nature of Sibelius’s northern lights and landscapes in favour of the warm reassurance of here and now.

As an interpretation it had merits (the ending was very sensitively handled), but there were times early on when it suggested little more than a play through.

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