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S & H Concert Review

Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Britten: BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis, Ian Bostridge, Friday 27th September. (ME)


This strikingly planned programme certainly got the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new season under way in style, and their advance details for the rest of 2002-3 look extremely enticing, especially for enthusiasts of contemporary music and vocal music; during the coming months we shall hear the UK premieres of John Adams’ ‘El Niño’ and Kaija Saariaho’s ‘L’amour de loin’ as well as new works from Peter Eötvös, Simon Bainbridge, Dominic Muldowney and György Kurtág, and the Composer Portraits will feature Oliver Knussen and Alberto Ginastera – plus what promises to be a fascinating Composer Weekend which will focus on the work of Mark-Anthony Turnage. For those of more traditional tastes, one of the highlights promises to be what sounds like a brilliant piece of scheduling, namely ‘Tristan und Isolde’ performed over three evenings, starrily cast and conducted (by Donald Runnicles) and with each evening’s act preceded by the music of composers who were deeply influenced by Wagner’s great work. I can hardly wait, but for now, back to last night.

The orchestra’s Conductor Laureate was in his habitually ebullient form for this concert: he clearly has a special affection for Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 1, and it must be said that he and the orchestra did actually manage to succeed in performing it as though most of it had not already been done to death; this was especially true of the third movement Gavotte, which for once sounded as ‘classical’ as the composer wanted it to, instead of presenting the sugary glaze one has come to expect. Indeed, apart from a little awkwardness in the woodwind tone at the start of the Finale, the playing throughout was sprightly and sweet – toned, just catching that Haydnesque lilt without labouring it too much.

Britten’s ‘Les Illuminations’ followed, with the ubiquitous Ian Bostridge as soloist. His singing of it is not yet perfection; his French is not always well enunciated, his articulation, especially in ‘Villes’ and ‘Royauté’ is not absolutely distinct, and, to my ears, his singing of such sections as ‘Being Beauteous’ and the exquisite ‘Phrase’ is lacking in the requisite sensuality, but he compensated with much ecstatic ardour and just plain beautiful singing: I still cannot understand why it is that so many people say that his is not a genuinely beautiful voice. One might listen in vain for the ideal frisson of sensuality at ‘Oh! nos os sont revêtus d’un nouveau corps amoureux’ or ‘et je danse,’ but the lovely tone, the care for the meaning of the words and the accuracy without dryness (with a wonderful B flat in the latter line) certainly compensated. He was strongest, perhaps, at moments of sardonic power, and ‘O le plus violent Paradis de la grimace enragée!’ was stunning. Davis and the orchestra gave him wonderfully sensitive support, the conductor achieving the very rare distinction of moulding the orchestral line so as to follow the composer’s instructions yet without once drowning out this relatively slender-voiced singer.

The second half began with a sparkling performance of Stravinsky’s ‘Symphonies of Wind Instruments,’ and the evening’s final work was Britten again, with the ‘Young Person’s Guide,’ famously described by the composer as a piece about which he had ‘never really worried that it was too sophisticated for kids – it is difficult to be that for the little blighters.’ There were plenty of ‘little blighters’ in the audience, and they clearly enjoyed a lively performance, directed and played with real love for the music. The ‘Lento’ and ‘Allegro Pomposo’ variations showcased the orchestra’s individual players at their best, with especially fine bassoons and trumpets, and Purcell’s great theme can seldom have sounded so triumphant.


Melanie Eskenazi

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