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S & H Concert Review

Sibelius, Lindberg, Mahler; Randi Stene (mezzo), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jukka-Pekka Saraste (con); Barbican Centre, 30th September 2003 (AR)


The BBC SO started its Autumn Barbican season with its usual, imaginative programming (in stark contrast to London’s other orchestras) under their Principal Guest Conductor, Jukka-Pekka Saraste.

Saraste’s magnetic performance of Sibelius’ symphonic poem Tapiola, Opus 112 (1926) had the perfect blend of starkness with serenity, with an orchestral balance which was essentially string oriented. In the opening passages he coaxed his forces to play with a distant, subdued style, duly emphasising the throbbing melancholic pulse from the strings, their versatility floated between a hushed silky smoothness to a razor-edged shrillness.

The brass were less convincing, especially in the closing passages where the trombones were missing that essential, threatening punctuating attack; the horns, never quite achieved the raucous swooping bite the score demands. The same can be said of the soft-focused, etiolated woodwind which avoided the shrill pointed harshness that is required of them. One saving grace was the firm solid timpani playing of Christopher Hind.

The BBC’s commission of the world premiere of Magnus Lindeberg’s Concerto for Orchestra consists of five movements, the last being split into two halves. The fragmented form of this hybrid Concerto constitutes both a splitting-off and a bridge between each movement, with each one becoming a memory trace of the other. Within each movement there is further fragmentation and division which makes this score a Chinese boxes-type multiplicity of movements within movements.

The opening shrill brass fanfares and spiky woodwind suggested Janacek and Bartok; as the music progressed it seemed to forget where it was going and fell back on its tracks, caught up in a vortex of exploding and imploding sounds, often without direction. The percussion (subtly orchestrated by the composer) were always in a state of tension with the brass and strings, who seemed intent on holding back the flow of the music.

While this first movement is about ten minutes in actual duration it is beyond time in the sense that it is discontinuous, negating real time and always in a state of becoming and arriving – nowhere! It reminded one of a musical version of the age-old symbol of the snake swallowing its own tail. The two inner second and third movements, as chamber-like structures, further fragmented the score, or scores – as it is not just one work but many nested within one another like Russian dolls.

For a brief moment in the ten minute last movement we were lifted out of this (already fragmented) Concerto with a starkly isolated violin solo where we found ourselves in a disturbingly foreign and alienated space. The starkness of this violin solo seemed to make a split in this schizoid Concerto, splicing it into two concerti occupying different spaces.

There are no closing passages per se but rather sounds that bring us back to the beginning as memory traces of the past/future. Lindberg’s splintered Concerto constitutes a musical palindrome, where the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning, like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence of the Same.

Gustav Mahler’s Songs from ‘Das Knaben Wunderhorn’ (1892-99) opened part two with Saraste and the BBC SO seemingly more in tune with this composer than with Sibelius. Mezzo-soprano Randi Stene had the perfect silvery timbre for these naïve folk songs, bringing a simple, direct child-like characterisation that many other singers either over-do or miss entirely. Stene brought the right degree of lilting grace to Rheinlegendchen as did the reduced BBC SO. Stene was at her best in Wo die schonen Trompeten blasen, floating her phrases with a simple yet ravishing gracefulness, against a tapestry of serene strings. The solemn solo trumpet entries ideally matched her mellow tones.

The Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, a motif from Mahler’s Second Symphony, had some wonderfully pointed woodwind playing, matching the gusto and bravura of Stene’s pointed humour, which was even more projected in the closing Lob des hohen Verstandes with her cuckoo and ass characterisations echoing those coming from the brass and woodwind, the clarinets in particular being wonderfully incisive.

Saraste ended his concert with Sibelius’ Sixth Symphony in D minor, Op 104 (1923) and, as with Tapiola, adopted flowing, rock steady tempi throughout and smooth orchestral textures, with an emphasis on the strings at the expense of the brass and woodwinds.

The first movement had a sense of thrusting urgent fluidity, with the jagged, dagger-like strings taking on a brooding hypnotic effect. In the closing passages the ‘cellos and double basses assumed an intense, shuddering tone. All that was lacking was the presence of the brass, who were toned down and curiously muted. In the second movement Saraste assumed an even darker palette, making the music more fragmented and bringing out the essential starkness in the score. In the third, the conductor created an extraordinary jolting sensation from the marching strings, creating a hypnotic effect. The closing Allegro had an intense anarchic urgency about it, reminiscent of Lindberg’s earlier Concerto’s contest of sound forces freeing themselves from formal constraints.

This concert augured well for the forthcoming season, and puts to shame the pusillanimous schedules of London’s other leading symphony orchestras.

Alex Russell

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