The citizens of Birmingham were queueing up at the door when I arrived in good time for this concert, and the hall was nearly full when the concert began. All seats were unreserved and at the same price wherever you sat – an arrangement that has always appealed to me. Certainly it discriminates against those who can’t get there early, but at least it doesn’t discriminate against those who may be devoted music-lovers but not wealthy enough to afford what would have been a top-price seat in the centre stalls.

Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham; photo by Barry Gibb / Digita
Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra at the Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham; photo by Barry Gibb / Digita

The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra gave a moderately rousing performance of the Egmont overture, excellently played, but more of a Sunday afternoon opener than a visionary call to heroism which would have had us all storming out to make the world a better place.

That role was taken by Byron Parish, who appeared on stage to play the Bruch Violin Concerto no. 1 in a long white shirt, looking a bit like a junior hospital doctor, and gave us a talk about bowel cancer. He told us he was going to run in the London Marathon in support of Bowel & Cancer Research, and that his daughter would be collecting money at the door. And he then played the violin with great charm, a rather gentle, warm-hearted performance of this warhorse of a concerto. The orchestra gave steady support, and Parish sparkled above them in the first movement prelude. You wait expectantly, though not without anxiety, for the big tunes in the slow movement: will this be embarrassingly sentimental? In this performance they seemed perfectly judged, Parish played with a restrained sentiment which expressed a very humane vulnerability. The audience listened in rapt silence, and there was a sense that we were all in this together, rather than mere spectators as some virtuoso display. The closing Allegro energico was a little more “moderato” than “energico”, but it fitted well with the genial nature of the performance.

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 makes a big second half – but the composer did show some restraint in the structure. The third theme of the Finale appears just once, the composer having decided that enough was enough and it need not reappear in the recapitulation. But this one appearance bursts in dramatically fortissimo for full orchestra, with the trumpets and horns jabbing sextuplets above a strident trombone theme. It showed one of the outstanding qualities of this orchestra and conductor: every time there was a tutti entry, they came in snap-bang together with perfect ensemble. All the brassy climaxes were wonderfully effective and strongly executed and it made for a very powerful presentation of the score.

What was lacking was a little extra imagination, tone-poetry, atmosphere in the quieter moments. The opening horn call was cleanly played – which is always an achievement to be applauded – but without any special nuance, and the quieter moments in the development passed without creating that deep tension in which one hardly dare breathe for fear of disturbing the magic. The strings in the Andante sounded a little as though they could have done with some more rehearsal time, but they improved as the movement progressed, the violas doing well with their second subject – and indeed the strings performed well in their responses to the tapestry of horn calls that forms the Scherzo.

Michael Seal conducted with great clarity and attention to all sections of the orchestra. Indeed, at the opening of the Finale he seemed very anxious to ensure that the basses keep their insistent repeated crotchets firmly on the beat, which they did, and the mighty first theme exposition was a thing of glory. This movement comes in for a fair bit of criticism from commentators, but I have always loved its wealth of attractive thematic material and its “heavenly length”. The coda was masterfully paced, the dynamics well controlled, and the horns blaring their triplets going up and down the major triad above the repetition of the opening theme of the whole symphony gave added excitement to a glorious finish. Well, yes, it is a bit of a marathon – not a fundraiser perhaps, but certainly able to raise the spirits on a cold Sunday afternoon.

***11