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Carter, Beethoven, R. Strauss & Stravinsky: Emanuel Ax (piano), BBC Symphony Chorus & Orchestra/Jirí Belohlávek, Barbican Hall, 22.10.2005 (CC)



The BBC Symphony Orchestra's chief Conductor Designate led his orchestra-to-be in a concert designed to celebrate 75 years to the day since Adrian Boult conducted the orchestra for the first time. The idea was to reflect the orchestra's contemporary music links as well as the legion of 'top-flight' soloists that have joined the orchestra as guests.


Elliott Carter was the 'modernist' concerned, his Réflexions of 2003/4 receiving its UK premiere. Billed as a mere five minutes, it was in actual fact just under double that (somewhat spookily setting a bit of a trend as it turned out – the interval was forty minutes as opposed to twenty).  Réflexions was composed for Pierre Boulez' 80th birthday celebrations and so begins with a roll on a stone ('pierre' in French). I'm not sure I entirely follow the composer's logic in deriving his generating hexachord from Boulez' name. B is straightforward enough (B flat), but O=G sharp; U=C (Ut?); L=A (La?) E=E (obviously) and Z=D sharp (perhaps less obviously). Musically this was typical Carter complexity leading to a typically Carter 'so what?' impression, and while it was nice to hear so much of the contrabass clarinet, this work emerged as somewhat jaded modernism.

Emanuel Ax's interpretation of the Emperor had more than a touch of the routine about it. Technically there was little to complain about, although Ax's sound is rather harsh. Ax projects hugely, but where was the subtlety. Frequent perfunctory passages contrasted with the more gritty orchestral contribution. Perfect double-trills do not compensate for interpretative depth. A resolute mp/mf orchestral opening to the usually magical slow movement led to a sort of 'half-magic' from the soloist. The only real redeeming factor of this slow movement was some impressive woodwind contributions – even the transition failed to cast a spell. If the finale was fast and nimble, it also contained definite drops in tension. Disappointing.

Things did not improve too much in the second half, when it eventually came. Strauss' Tod und Verklärung, despite some nicely pulsating strings at the opening, was hardly hugely dark in shade. The oboe solo that is usually a shaft of light was plain and there was unforgivably scrappy violin playing later on. Whatever urgency there was (and there was some) would have been immeasurably enhanced by a string section that evinced some body of tone, at least.

Finally (beginning at 9.37pm!), Stravinsky's magnificent Symphony of Psalms. Things did not begin promisingly, with a first chord splattered all over the Barbican Hall and most of the way to Liverpool Street; nor did the ensuing lackadaisical woodwind dovetailing help. The ultra-high oboe was a redeeming feature, but why did the chorus not sing together as one body (the sound was not just homogenous). There was hardly any sense of the grand, just as there was no mystery in the second movement. Again some excellent solo contributions (oboe and flute, this time, but vocal accents on 'expectans' were very muted and sopranos in general were thin.

The finale said it all. Rhythmically it tried but just missed being on-the-ball. The gorgeous opening even managed to be literal, and the hypnosis of the final pages was partial, to say the least. Just to put some icing on the cake, the tuning in the final chords was way off. I had hoped for more. Much more.



Colin Clarke



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