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S & H Concert Review

Stravinsky, Turnage, Varèse Lawrence Power (viola); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Oliver Knussen. Barbican Hall, Thursday, March 18th, 2004 (CC)


Certainly no ‘easy listening’ here. If you thought you knew Petrushka, Knussen was on hand to grab you by the throat (decibels galore) and demand you listen afresh. Inspiring the BBC Symphony Orchestra to heights they should surely climb more regularly (the security of the high ‘cellos near the beginning was quite remarkable), it was not only the composer’s ear for detail that Knussen brought to this Stravinsky. The canvas of Petrushka was painted in bright, garish colours, while gestures were positively graphic. Energy and volume were at a premium and nothing was given in half-measures (including the double-bassoon ‘farts’). Rhythms were spot-on (the famous ‘Russian Dance’ leapt off the page), textures buzzed with energy (the opening of the fourth Tableau, ‘The Shrovetide Fair, Evening’, was a living cloud of sound). Individual soloists and sections excelled themselves – special mention should perhaps go to the slithery bitonal clarinets of ‘In Petrushka’s Cell’.

The 1947 version of the score, which was on display here, is often described as ‘leaner’ or ‘more slimmed-down’ than the original, perhaps implying an element of watering-down, yet Knussen had the BBCSO play it for all it is worth. A wonderfully entertaining and consistently illuminating performance, but admittedly one that did not erase memories of Temirkanov and the LSO in this hall in September last year – but give me Turnage and Varèse as evening partners over the Nutcracker any day!

There seems to be no stopping Mark-Anthony Turnage (and long may he continue). His viola concerto, On Opened Ground gained its inspirational spark from Seamus Heaney (Opened Ground is the title of Heaney’s Selected Poems, 1966-96) and is a clear example of Turnage’s lyric impulse. Premièred in Cleveland in 2002 (with Yuri Bashmet as soloist), this was its first UK performance. Having Lawrence Power as soloist enabled the work to be heard in the best possible light. Power lives up to his surname (sharing with Bashmet the ability to project huge character through an instrument often thought of as somewhat reticent). Not only that, he is remarkably musical, consistently freeing and illuminating Turnage’s lines. Physically, on stage he is very mobile (perhaps distractingly so).

On Opened Ground is in two movements, each subdivided – Cadenza and Scherzino; Interrupted Song and Chaconne. Accents on brass were incisively delivered after an explosive initial cadenza. The high, sweet lines of the Interrupted Song were presented in a lyric arch (definite Britten influence in this section), punctuated by an orchestral ‘cry’. Compositionally, the concluding Passacaglia is the score’s highest achievement. The (ascending) Passacaglia theme creeps in on subterranean double basses and builds to a highly rhythmic climax. The colouring of this entire section is dark and ultimately disturbing. Turnage, once more, does not fail to deliver.

Finally, a rare performance of Varèse’s Arcana (1925-7, rev. 1960). This work is scored for huge orchestra (a veritable football eleven makes up the percussion section) and is utterly uncompromising in its delivery of viscerally felt, dense blocks of sound and nightmarish shrieks. There is a Stravinskian elementalism to the orchestral colour. Massive pitch aggregates and glittering, seething energy made for an exhilarating quarter of an hour that closed an exciting and stimulating concert. Knussen’s qualities as conductor just seem to multiply, while his programming is always illuminating, shining like a good deed in a predominantly dull world.

Colin Clarke



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