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Sibelius, Turnage and Nielsen: Martin Robertson, saxophone, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Swensen, conductor, Barbican Hall, 19.3.2006 (AR)

Joseph Swensen’s performance of Sibelius’ En Saga, Op. 9 was a text-book reading on how not to conduct this score. From beginning to end Swensen was unable to negotiate the score’s pulse and rhythmic metre, letting En Saga sag instead of pulsate. With tempi on the slow side the music just sounded static, resulting in a lack of contrast between the lyrical and the dramatic passages. The brass were too strident, often drowning out the lacklustre strings, whilst the bass drum played without incisive bite. In short, the conductor had no idea of dynamic contrast and tempo relations and as a result the work simply fell apart.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Your Rockaby(1992-3) – performed as part of the Barbican’s current Beckett Centenary Festival - was played with far more verve and commitment than the Sibelius with the BBC Symphony clearly enjoying the composer’s culinary score. Like many post-modern compositions Your Rockaby is a constellation of composers derivative of Varèse, Bartok, Stravinsky, Bernstein and Jazz with Turnage’s voice being (consciously?) absent. Maybe this is what the music is all about: being absent and being alien to the composer – a composition without an author as it were.

Martin Robertson’s almost removed and subtle soprano saxophone playing negated a sense of him being a star soloist. The instrument sounded like a female voice lost in the dense orchestral fog of a subterranean sleepscape. When he played with more projected power the voice still sounded alien as if coming from the other voices of the orchestra, which in turn had no voices of their own. The vast orchestra served as a secret seal concealing both the soloist and itself – a concealing of sounds and soloist that suddenly become unconcealed and revealed, but which still reveals no voices of their own. Maybe this was the subconscious influence of Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby rocking the boat of the score back and forth and in and out of nothingness. The floating vessel capsizes at the end of the sea and sinks beneath itself taking the soloist down with it to nowhere in a last cry of silence.

Whilst there was nothing radically ‘new’ in this condensed score it is precisely the ‘old’ that haunts this work – a memory trace of a museum of mummified sounds of past composers come to life. Although Your Rockaby is very well orchestrated and often imaginative and exhilarating, weird and wonderful it lacks real invention.

Carl Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, ‘The Inextinguishable’ (1914-16) suffered a similarly sad fate to that of the En Saga – being badly conducted and played from start to finish. Again, the conductor’s laboured tempi resulted in slack rhythms and limp phrasing. Throughout Swensen showed little understanding of how the four movements interrelate with each other.

With loud, coarse-grained brass, and rough woodwind and strings, this performance sounded under rehearsed. Swensen missed the translucent chamber-like textures of the score, especially in the subtle writing for piccolo and flute. In the introduction to the Finale the strings were very thin lacking the shuddering shimmer that is demanded here and they were often out of sync with the woodwind and brass. However, what really let this drab performance down was the etiolated timpani playing of John Chimes – and at the end of the work – Russell Jordan. In the closing passages the two sets of timpani – spatially separated - should sound like a struggling battle between two opposing forces - but all we heard was a homogenized harmony between two effete vicars with their polite playing robbing the music of its violent manic energy. With such apologetic and ineffectual playing the composer’s wishes were negated.

Apart from Turnage’s exhilarating Your Rockaby this was an evening of uninspired and under rehearsed music making quickly to forget.



Alex Russell



Further listening:


Sibelius: En Saga Op. 9, Finlandia, Karelia Suite, Swan of Tuonela, Intermezzo, Ballade, Romance in C major; Royal Philharmonic orchestra, Anthony Collins (conductor): Beulah: 5PD8.


Nielsen: Symphony No. 4; Martinon: Symphony No. 4, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Jean Martinon (conductor): Tower Records RCA Precious Selection 100: No. 7: BMG: TWCL: 2010.







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