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S & H Concert Review

Weber, McPhee, Hindemith, Puccini/Berio, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Chrous, Leonard Slatkin, 10th March, 2003 (AR)

Eva Urbanova Turandot
Dennis O’Neill Prince Calaf
Christopher Gillett Peng
Amanda Roocroft Liu
Iain Paterson Timur

Weber Overture and March from Turandot
McPhee Tabuh-Tabuhan
Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Puccini (compl. Berio) Turandot, Act 3 (UK premiere)


This concert could be billed as Variations on a Chinese Theme by Four Composers, such was the oriental influence that ran through these diverse compositions.

Unlike the vast majority of conservative concert programming today, which centres around the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, the BBC SO have always had a long tradition of promoting rarely heard scores, as well as premiering many contemporary works, and tonight’s programme contained both.

Things got off to a heavy handed start with a bashed out performance of Weber’s rarely performed Turandot Overture & March (Op.37). Here the BBC SO sounded more like a crude, amateur band, with the brass and percussion drowning out the strings. Things improved somewhat with the toccata for orchestra and two pianos in three movements Tabuh-tabuhan (1936) by Colin Mc Phee (1900-64). According to the detailed programmes notes, Tabuh-tabuhan is ‘a Balinese collective noun meaning different drum rhythms, metric forms, gong punctuations, gamelans, and music essentially percussive.’ While conductor and orchestra did their best, the work is basically hollow and vacuous. The orchestration sounded repetitive, close to a tourist advertisement sound track, or what Brecht called ‘culinary’ taste: easy listening Indonesian bump-and-tinkle. The music of Steve Reich and John Adams is deeply rooted in Mc Phee’s adaptation of the gamelan technique. The problem with performing this over-orchestrated percussive work was that the strings were nearly always submerged beneath the noise.

What followed was a revelation: a spellbinding performance of Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses after Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. Here conductor and orchestra rose magnificently to the occasion; it was an extraordinary experience, both conductor and orchestra seeming to take on a new identity to create a new sound. Unlike the McPhee work, the Hindemith is an orchestral masterpiece and the conductor clearly understood every detail of the composer’s intricate score, resulting in an inspired performance. James Levine and the Munich Philharmonic performed this work at the 2002 Proms and at the time I thought it almost unsurpassable: but Slatkin did it! The conductor seemed to get a great rhythmic swagger and raw energy into the piece, making Levine’s account seem civilised and suave by comparison.

The Allegro was conducted with great gusto and there was some wonderfully pointed woodwind playing, sharply etched against the dense orchestral textures. The Scherzo is based on a tune from the Weber Turandot Overture heard at the start of the concert; here Slatkin got his skates on and handled the gradual but inexorable acceleration flawlessly. The BBC SO excelled themselves: the rasping horns were nerve shattering; the strings in the Andantino were radiant, whilst the trombones in the March were magnificent, as were the percussion, who ended the work with colossal impact.

Luciano Berio’s completion of Turandot Act 3 (2001) is based on a critical examination of Puccini’s sketches and is the third such attempt following on from completions by the Italian composer Franco Alfano and the American composer Janet Maguire. Berio’s sparse and stark orchestration is not mere pastiche Puccini, but veers towards the chromatic dissonances of the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

Berio’s version differs from Alfano’s in three distinct ways: Firstly, Berio shortens the libretto significantly only setting the text for which Puccini provided some musical motifs; secondly, he has composed a lengthy orchestral interlude at the moment where Calaf kisses Turandot and, lastly, Berio’s version does not end with a joyous hymn-like rendition of the Nessun dorma theme from the chorus, but quietly, like an awed whisper, reminiscent of Wagner’s ending of Tristan und Isolde.

Slatkin’s mordant conducting drove the music urgently on and inspired some very expressive playing. Here the percussion section shone through powerfully, and the gongs were almost white hot and steaming. The Philharmonia Chorus were in good voice but often sang too loudly and they sometimes drowned out the soloists and the orchestra itself. It seems to be a problem of the Barbican Hall’s notorious acoustic, which always tends to dissolve the middle range of the orchestra.

Tenor Dennis O’Neil’s Calaf was wonderfully dramatic, giving his words an impassioned resonance, whilst Eva Urbanova’s penetrative voice handled her climactic moments perfectly; she sang her lines ‘I know his name’ and ‘His name is Love’ very poignantly. Amanda Roocroft’s Liu was equally moving, and she is obviously a fine singing-actress. It would be marvellous to hear these three principals in a full version of the opera. On this showing, Urbanova’s ‘In questa reggia’ would be memorable indeed.

Alex Russell








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