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,
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
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.