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Seen and Heard Concert Review

Britten, Anderson, Walton: Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano), Edward Gardner (conductor) BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London 12.05.2007 (AO)

Britten: A Charm of Lullabies,

Julian Anderson: Symphony

Britten: Phaedra

Walton Symphony No 1.

There could have been several themes behind this programme. Britishness would be one theme and “newness” another, since two of the symphonies were first symphonies and it was the first high profile performance by Edward Gardner since his appointment as ENO’s music director.  Even the Britten Charm of Lullabies was here heard in the 1990 orchestration by Colin Matthews.  Matthew’s arrangement of the Britten songs is interesting, because he expands the basic material more than by simply replicating the piano part with orchestra.  With inventive bridging passages, and internal references, he unifies the songs into a coherent cycle, almost a continuous sequence.  It’s rather good, but spoiled by rather muddy playing.  Perhaps Connolly was saving herself for Phaedra, the real tour de force of the evening, which is understandable.   These aren’t really “gentle” lullabies – Britten is too sharp for that – but they might have benefited from warmer delivery.  On the other hand, the approach worked well in the song where the nurse is half cajoling the infant and half threatening him, dropping into the spoken line “Quiet! Quiet!”

A secondary theme of the evening might have been homage to Sibelius, for Julian Anderson’s simply titled Symphony was inspired by a painting of Lake Keitele in Finland, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.  That painter’s work will be familiar to anyone who knows Sibelius, because it’s so often used for CD covers. It doesn’t really matter what the painting looks like. Anderson’s music is about atmosphere, not specific details in the painting.  It starts with a long, almost silent rippling which gradually builds up in complexity : it’s like a small stream breaking out of the frozen earth, just as Anderson is breaking out from his initial source of reference.  As it grows, flutes, oboes and horns take up the rippling melody, which continuously resurfaces throughout the piece in different guises.  Of course, Anderson makes references to Sibelius.  In music as evocative as this, it wouldn’t be polite not to acknowledge the master composer of spiritual landscapes.  But Anderson’s idiom is very much his own.  Despite the quirky playfulness, its effect does rely on structural clarity.  Having learned the piece from Sakari Oramo’s fine recording, I rather missed his light, deft touch, which made the piece sparkle.  Nonetheless, Gardner got some lucid playing, particularly from the violins. The finale was loudly impressive, especially when the gong was beaten full force.

Britten’s magnificent Phaedra is natural showpiece because it’s so dramatic. Orchestrated with a bizarre combination of harpsichord and percussion, its metallic and discordant timbres throw the drama into sharp focus. This is violent, arresting music, impossible to ignore.    Connolly was in better form, enunciating the tragedy with gravitas.   The steady rhythms in the voice part replicate the formality of ancient Greek painting, figures seen in relief on rather than full face, which rather aptly describes the emotional colouring heard tonight.  This music can work well enough in these terms, though Britten included the piquant cello solo for a reason.

Similarly, Walton’s Symphony No 1 can be played just as convincingly for impact rather than depth.   It was designed to impress and overwhelm, a star turn created to bring the composer to attention.  It’s natural populist repertoire, made for occasions like The Proms where everyone wants to have a good time. For Gardner, it was an ideal choice because it demonstrates his ability to whip up excitement and thrill an audience.  This will stand him in very good stead at the ENO. He’ll be an asset because this is exactly what audiences seem to enjoy best.  After the difficult times of the recent past, with mysterious appointments and conductors pulling out before they even take up the post, the ENO needs someone flamboyant who generates publicity.  On the other hand, the choice of this symphony was worrying for me on a deeper level.  Widely popular as it is, I can’t warm to it, no matter how I try. In this performance, the aspects I dislike most about it came to the fore, such as the cod Sibelius borrowings, and the film music bombast. Of course, it’s my fault because everyone else seemed to like it.

Music aside, I’d come to learn about Gardner first hand, rather than going by reputation.  I could not care less that he’s 31, or that he’s as handsome as a pop star. On the contrary, I was looking forward to being able to hail him as a saviour for the ENO.  This week alone, however, I’ve heard four conductors, carefully making a point of studying their technique, their adherence to detail and general musical rigour.  One of them debuted in 2005 at La Scala where the formidable audience doesn’t warm to outsiders, yet received an ecstatic ovation. I’ve heard the recording, and can hear why.  It would be completely unfair to expect Gardner to have that level of experience, but one thing is certain: he’ll provide what some audiences value.


Anne Ozorio


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