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Stravinsky, Bartók, Ives, Adams Pekka Kuusisto (violin), BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/John Adams, Barbican Hall, November 23rd, 2004 (CC)

Interesting programming. Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale and Bartók’s First Violin Concerto in the first half contrasted with an all-American conclusion of Ives’ ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ (Symphony No. 4) and Adams’ own Harmonium.

Adams does not look like a natural conductor, more a composer who has learned something about conducting so he can present his own music. His gestures are stiff and gawky. Much better to close you eyes and listen, for there is little doubt the BBC Symphony did indeed pay well for him.

And how wonderful to hear Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale (1919) live. Culled from the music of his opera The Nightingale (1914) but with the music seen with post-Petrushka hindsight, it is a virtuoso example of a composer reusing pre-extant music to its fullest. Essentially following the final two scenes of the opera, Song of the Nightingale melds together the original’s quasi-oriental sensualism (think Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade a few years on) with Debussian extra colouring and Stravinsky’s own, special input, particularly on the rhythmic side. Yet it is no hotch-potch, as this performance reminded us. Of particular note was the solo trumpet’s delivery of the theme of the Fisherman’s Song later on (beautifully phrased), and Janice Graham’s superb solo violin contributions.

Bartók’s first violin concerto (1907/8) was inspired by the Hungarian violinist Steffi Geyer, with whom the composer fell in love (so did Schoeck, for that matter, and Geyer may herself be heard playing Schoeck’s concerto on Jecklin JD715-2). Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto was the soloist on this occasion. Using music, he was almost impossibly mobile, so much so I frequently had to avert my eyes and try just to listen. This is an instructive exercise, as what you hear (in this case) is less than you see. Kuusisto seemed best in the unbroken, long lines of the first movement and his tone could be sweet and attractive. Perhaps he was off-centre in the games of the second movement (Allegro giocoso) because the orchestra sounded unsure of itself. How much rehearsal time had been allotted to the concerto, I wonder?

The Fugue, ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains’ comes from Ives’ ambitious Fourth Symphony. The BBCSO seemed to respond to Ives’ nostalgic, affectionate world with real warmth and, later on, with positively glowing textures. By far the highlight of the concert, the only downside seemed to be that it only lasted around eight minutes.

Adams’ Harmonium (1981) didn’t. Amazing how long half an hour can seem, really. Minimalism always seemed to me one of those necessary roads music had to take and then would (should) grow out of in time. True, the major voices – Glass, Reich and indeed Adams himself – managed to forge individually recognisable forms of minimalism, but if as a musico-philosophic response to musical trends at its inception it was limited, it was to be ever downhill from there.

Adams chose to set poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson, two major poets. Of their greatness there is no doubt. Of the greatness of what Adams does to them, there is every doubt. Minimalistic gestures just seem clichéd today. As a method of composition it has not worn its age lightly, and when it is as archetypal as this the effect is very different from the mesmeric. On a performance level, all credit to the sopranos for coping so well with the high, disjunct melody of the final line of the first movement, a setting of Donne’s ‘Negative Love’.

Even the archetypically-American harmonies of ‘Because I could Not Stop for Death’ (what a poem!) sounded hackneyed. Instantly geographically identifiable, to be sure, but how the musical inspiration lagged behind the literary. Finally, more Dickinson, the sexually charged ‘Wild Nights’, a virtuoso exploration of glittering banality.

In a sense I feel guilty being so negative. This was Adams’ night – at the beginning of the second half he was publicly awarded a Fellowship of the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters (David Ferguson, Chair of said august organisation, was there to hand it over). Yet the feeling after Harmonium was one of almost betrayal. After three ‘real’ pieces of music, why should this be foisted upon us?

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

Song of Nightingale: Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez DG 471 197-2, or LSO/Dorati (Mercury Living Presence SACD 470 643-2). Ideally own both, then graduate to the full opera, conducted by Boulez with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on mid-price Elatus 2564 60339-2 (soloists include the miraculous Phyllis Brun-Julson and the marvellous John Tomlinson).

Bartók: Chung; Solti on Double Decca 473 271-2.

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