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S & H Concert Review

Dukas, Chin, R. Strauss Viviane Hagner (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins. Barbican Hall, Friday, February 20th, 2004 (CC)

 

 

Winning the 2004 Grawemeyer Award has certainly helped put Korean composer Unsuk Chin on the musical map (apparently she has enough commissions to keep her busy all the way up to 2011!) Chin won the prize for her Violin Concerto, and here it received its UK première – the soloist was the violinist who created the part, giving the world premiere in Berlin in January 2002, Viviane Hagner.

Chin is a composer with an acute ear and, possibly more importantly, she is utterly uncompromising about preserving the integrity of her musical thought. Perhaps this comes as a result of her studies, in Hamburg, with Ligeti (himself a composer who has a certain resolute uniqueness about him). Part of being uncompromising is obviously not scaling down difficulties for the soloist, and indeed the solo part bristles with challenges, all met supremely on this occasion by Hagner.

In her pre-concert discussion, Chin said, ‘My music is a reflection of my dreams’ … if that sounds a bit Takemitsuesque, then perhaps that is not a million miles from the truth. Yet – and it is a big ‘yet’ - there is more grit in Chin’s writing, more of a challenge to both performer and listener, and it is this that makes the experience of her music so exciting.

The open-string, ruminative opening on one level immediately recalls the Berg concerto. Yet this is more sensuous (the solo line is set against a bed of xylophones). The extensive percussion section throughout is important for its role as anchor to the violin’s flights of fantasy. The accompanied cadenza of this first of the four movements (the concert follows the four-movement symphonic model) is magnificent in its halting steps to ‘find itself’ and its sheer breadth of vision. As if to prove it was an integral part of the structure, the orchestra responds immediately with its own cadenza (just the sort of thing the BBCSO thrives upon).

Textures in the second movement turn more explicitly towards late Debussy and indeed Boulez. In this movement, Hagner’s tone was utterly beautiful, whether it be her sonorous low register or her sweet-toned high one. The emphasis on hypnotic beauty in this movement will remain long in the memory.

A brief, glittering Scherzo that also includes shades of darkness within its dynamic orbit led to a finale that brought back elements of the previous three movements and culminated in a raw ‘shout’ for orchestra. The dedication of soloist and orchestra was beyond praise, the concentration maintained throughout.

Having heard Debussy’s Jeux (1912/13) so recently, it was fascinating to hear Dukas’ La Péri (1911/12). Dukas certainly may have influenced Debussy, for this last publication of his is evocative in the extreme (indeed, the two works share the same ‘shape’). The opening fanfare (probably the most famous bit of it), played standing, was given with great aplomb by the BBCSO’s brass – the evocative upper string opening and warm cello melodies providing contrast. It would be fair to say that there are sensual elements to this score that Debussy extended into the realms of the erotic. Dukas’ sensuality is firmer than Debussy’s, less elusive, yet no less French in essence.

Finally, some Straussian opulence in the form of Also sprach Zarathustra. Brabbins projected the structure of Strauss’ tone poem effectively – if only there had been more depth to the strings, and the timpani had not been so light in the famous opening (‘Sunrise’). But there was much to admire here, not least the embryonic aspirations of the ‘Mankind’ theme on its first appearances or the Straussian opulence of ‘Of Joys and Passions’. Brabbins clearly enjoys Strauss’ virtuosity (all three composers in this concert had or have tremendous ears for sonority, in their different ways) and there were contrasts aplenty. Particularly impressive was the way the fugue theme (‘Of Science’) crawled out of the primordial sludge and how in the course of its working out rigour gave way to vigour.

Inspired concert planning, then. The works of Unsuk Chin are clearly worth seeking out. Intriguingly, Chin is working on an opera for Los Angeles. Watch this space …

Colin Clarke

 

 

 

 

 


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