Eva Urbanova Turandot
Dennis O’Neill Prince Calaf
Christopher Gillett Peng
Amanda Roocroft Liu
Iain Paterson Timur
Weber Overture and March from Turandot
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.