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S & H Concert Review

BY GEORGE! Stravinsky, Benjamin, Berlioz William Dazeley (baritone); London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis, Barbican Hall, May 4th, 2003 (CC)


‘Musical Encounters with George Benjamin’ continued with this concert, in which Benjamin’s choices brought a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, his own Sometime Voices and Three Scenes from Berlioz’ Roméo et Juliette. As always, this led to a balanced yet stimulating evening of music.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is a highly characteristic work, rhythmically alive and vital, yet with some extraordinarily deep, slow writing. It makes sometimes extreme demands on the orchestra (the scoring excludes upper strings and clarinets) – not that one would guess it here. Chords were almost preternaturally together, accents were explosive and horns rose to the challenge of the sudden almost Mahlerian outburst of the third movement marvellously. Davis seemed to want to emphasise the lyrical side of the work, linking this perhaps to the devotional. So the horn and ‘cello phrase before the chorus’ ‘Exaudi’ was milked for all its worth, and the very close of the piece’s hypnotic aura fell nicely in to place (surely this is what Benjamin refers to when he writes that the Symphony of Psalms, ‘gives one the impression of participating in a grand but very human ritual’). The second movement, though, showed the most weakness. Despite enormously impressive wind playing in the opening instrumental fugue, shortly after the entrance of the chorus it all became far too diffuse and unfocussed – uncomfortably so, in fact. Nevertheless, overall this Stravinsky was an impressive achievement: the LSO made light of Stravinsky’s challenges, while the LSC proved their status as the greatest of London’s symphonic choruses.

The baritone Alan Opie was originally scheduled to sing the solo in Benjamin’s Sometime Voices of 1996. Unfortunately he was unable to appear, and William Dazeley stepped into his shoes. Sometime Voices takes its inspiration from Caliban’s speech from Act 3 scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There is no way one could have guessed that Dazeley was a substitution, so strong and confident was his voice, so clear his diction. Placed imposingly behind the chorus (who chant the name of ‘Caliban’ throughout the piece, with the cries becoming ever more insistent), it was Dazeley’s performance from the very start. His lamenting melisma on the final line, ‘I cried to dream again’, was truly touching. The LSC again seemed entirely at home. Sometime Voices served as a reminder of the sheer compositional talent of George Benjamin: his harmonic and orchestrational palette is seemingly without end.

Davis’ Berlioz rarely fails to impress, and this was no exception. George Benjamin’s programme note was at pains to point out the progressive nature of Berlioz (‘Berlioz was the true inventor of the modern orchestra’). The Queen Mab Scherzo, Mendelssohn and then some, brought out the miracles of Berlioz’ orchestration. The hunting calls for horns were particularly worthy of mention in this performance. Perhaps the extended Love Scene was most impressive, though. Benjamin refers to this as, ‘an important predecessor to Wagner’s Tristan’ and indeed the timeless, tenderly delicate atmosphere Davis evoked made this a particularly believable statement. Such was the intensity of this movement that it almost overshadowed the final excerpt (Romeo alone … Festivities at the Capulets), despite all the care lavished on the latter.

With microphones present at this concert it will be interesting to see if the LSO will issue all of the pieces, or whether the recording apparatus was only there for Colin Davis’ Berlioz? It would indeed be a treat if, especially, the Benjamin were to be issued at budget price.

Benjamin is evidently seeking to be thought-provoking in his programming of his series. On this occasion he certainly succeeded.

Colin Clarke



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