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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Haydn, Holt, Henze & Schubert Viviane Hagner (violin); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott. Barbican Hall, 18.2. 2006 (CC)


Interesting programming - the shadow of the Grim Reaper hangs over three of the four pieces here - does not guarantee satisfying musical experiences, as the BBC Symphony proved conclusively on this occasion. Haydn's Forty-Fourth is subtitled, 'Trauersymphonie' and is rumoured to have been the composer's favoured music for his own funeral. Its key of E minor gives the music a real expressive depth, something that Nott seemed intent on highlighting as his initial string phrasing showed. Yet first violin ensemble problems at semiquaver speed cast a shadow over the proceedings, and did so again in the Menuetto second movement.
Strangely, the Adagio seemed over-heavy (I say 'strangely' because there were only two double-basses) while the finale continued the trend towards disagreements of the ensemble kind. The finale in particular needs real unanimity of rhythm to catch fire properly. Disappointing.

The World Premiere of Simon Holt's witness to a snow miracle (2005) acted as a reminder of Holt's acute ear for sonorities. A BBC commission, this is a violin concerto in seven short movements and the soloist here was the excellent Viviane Hagner, who had impressed me in February 2004 with a performance of Unsuk Chin's Violin Concerto. She was no less convincing here.

The inspiration for the work comes from the story of St Eulalia, a virgin martyr. Put to death by the Romans in 204 AD, a white dove (her soul) is said to have flown from her mouth as she died after being suffocated by the smoke from her burning hair. A blanket of snow fell on her ashes and according to the composer, 'the violin is possibly Eulalia herself, or a witness to her torments and martyrdom'.


Hagner is clearly at home in this difficult repertory. She hits notes squarely in the middle, no matter how stratospheric they are and the furious fiddling of the solo first movement held no terrors for her at all. Her sound was as pure as the Virgin Saint she was portraying – she had no problems holding a 'lunga pausa' after this first movement before the tutti entered with brass whoops and processional percussion for 'the tearing, the burning'. Holt's scoring seemed deliberately 'silvery', and certainly otherwordly at times and many of the moments were striking, not least when the soloist was ruminating over a simple accompaniment of two double-basses. Superb.

Hans Werner Henze's Grim Reaper reference took the form of his 1996 Erlkönig, an 'orchestral fantasy of Goethe's poem and Schubert's Opus 1' and a work that also forms part of his full-length ballet, Le fils du l'air. At only ten minutes duration, it takes the concept of ongoing motion that is so explicit in Schubert's Lied as its basis. Are the lighter sections a direct allusion to the passages at 'Du liebes Kind' etc, I wonder? Whatever the answeris, this is one of Henze's more approachable scores.

Finally, some light among the shadows. Schubert's Sixth Symphony in C D589, and performed on a very grand scale. But for all the attempts at open-air space (the woodwind were clearly having a ball), the big-band strings exuded a congestion clearly at odds with Schubert's intentions. In the performance's favour though, there was a lyric impulse running through all of it, just as there was warmth to the Andante and some bite to accents in the Presto Scherzo. But the finale begs for significantly more sophistication than the Beeb's players could realistically deliver. My mind went back to Schubert concerts by the BBCSO with Günter Wand in my student days (the early 1980s) and from there to Wand's recording of the Sixth made with the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne in June 1962. It was from this that I reacquainted myself with the real spirit of Schubert and was reminded of the work's true stature (Testament SBT 1364).


Colin Clarke


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