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Wagner, Schoenberg, Beethoven: Susan Bullock (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson (conductor), Barbican Centre, London, 14.10.2005 (AO)


Surprisingly little attention was given to this concert by David Robertson in his debut as Principal Guest Conductor of the BBCSO in its 75th anniversary year. Robertson is one of the most dynamic conductors around, a man who positively exudes energy and musical intelligence.   The BBCSO is an excellent, open-minded orchestra:  Robertson says they are a joy to work with because they are so responsive to new ideas.  If this concert is anything to go by, this promises to be a stimulating partnership.

Robertson bounded onto the platform in his usual way and launched into Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde without fuss or ceremony.  Nothing was held back, as is sometimes the case when an orchestra knows they have hours yet to go, and the audience is waiting for the singers.    Robertson treated it as an entity in itself, every detail vividly focussed, distilling the tension and yearning of the whole opera into barely ten minutes.  Robertson's technique is striking.  He conducts with extreme precision – one movement of the finger, one glance towards a  player, nothing wasted or waffled.    Even more impressive is the rapport he has with the orchestra. When every player is this technically accomplished, freedom of expression flows naturally.  This was a Prelude full of spontaneity, vigorously and passionately played.

Seamlessly, the orchestra moved from the Prelude to the Ewartung without a break.  This was no mistake.  Juxtaposing the two pieces brilliantly illustrated their connection.  Both were revolutionary for their time, both extending musical and emotional boundaries.  Robertson seemed to be treating the Prelude as brand new music – conducting it as the daring, avant-garde thunderbolt that caused such controversy in its time.   At a stroke it put Ewartung into context, too.  There are many ways to interpret this piece, and this performance revealed definite insights.  Wisely, it made full use of the timbre of Susan Bullock's voice, so it truly integrated the individual talents on hand.   It is one thing for a conductor to have vision, but a really creative conductor makes best use of the unique qualities of those he or she works with. 

Bullock's voice is particularly well nuanced and warm.  Ewartung may be a cry of nightmarish anguish, but Bullock's singing gave added depth.  Her characterization was sensual, individual words and phrases expressed with richly chromatic timbre.  The effect was all the more disturbing because it made the situation more human and believable.  A singer with Bullock’s abilities can convey the switch from tenderness to the sudden, difficult leap of horror “Nein, das ist nicht der Schatten der Bank!” so well, that the harsh screaming of some other versions seems a cheap cop out.  This interpretation reaffirms the extreme eroticism underlying the obliteration of rational thought. It demonstrates that this is indeed a Liebestod in its own right.

The orchestra, too, was superb – Robertson keeping a rumbling undercurrent of murmuring strings against which every note of the harp stood out clearly.  Truly, this playing evoked the idea of a forest alive with unknown creatures: the sudden crescendos lighting up details like flashes in the dark.  At one climax, Robertson bent backwards as the orchestra roared forth – it was as they were an organic unit connected by a kind of creative elastic and he was pulling, with them, right into the audience.

The apotheosis was reached in Beethoven’s Fifth.  These players are so good that they relish a chance to play an old favourite as if it were completely new to them.  The sense of excitement was palpable: these players know what they are capable of and respond well to Robertson’s technique.  Not a gesture is wasted, not a detail muddied.  Even his feet come to rest neatly together. It was quite breathtaking how entire sections would instantly fall silent exactly on cue, and resume with equally precise attack.  The interplay between the dominant march and the more gentle passages throbbed with vigour and energy.  The effect was relentless and celebratory at the same time.   The chemistry between these musicians must be something special.  At the end, Robertson ran to the back of the orchestra to raise the hand of one man who’d been particularly good.  It augurs very well indeed for the future.


Anne Ozorio

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