The programme notes for this opening concert in a series devoted to the music of Michael Tippett included an interview with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s planning manager. Whilst outlining the tasks allotted to her, Rebecca Sackman-Smith gave no clues to the reasoning behind the very odd pairing of Tippett’s Triple Concerto and Henk de Vileger’s hotchpotch arrangement of ‘best bits’ from Wagner’s Ring.
The Tippett, at least, had purpose. It marked the start of a reassessment by the BBC SO of the composer’s orchestral music before the Britten centenary celebrations take over next year. It also commemorated the final outing of the Leopold Trio, whose members are to go their separate ways after 21 years together.
The Triple Concerto dates from 1979, placing it firmly within Tippett’s neo-lyrical phase. It was also influenced by the composer’s fascination with Indonesian gamelan music. The work gave the Trio, and other members of the orchestra, plenty of chances to shine. The rather awkward first movement contains brilliant cadenza-like solos for violin, viola and cello, and superbly blaring brass sections. The only rocky moment came when the BBC SO’s harpist almost fell off her chair, prompting solo violinist Isabelle van Keulen to turn around in bemusement. Notwithstanding this distraction, the sublime central movement was beautifully delivered, with all three soloists (including Lawrence Power’ viola and Kate Gould’s cello) rising and falling together along Tippett’s shifting melodic lines. With a significant quote from The Midsummer Marriage, the finale lays the work to rest with an air of resignation from the three soloists and gamelan-inspired percussion.
Following this, Henk de Vlieger’s 1991 The Ring — an orchestral adventure seemed even more of a cuckoo companion piece. For a start, Wagner had no particular influence on Tippett’s music. Secondly, the piece is not the sort of populist work that one associates with the BBC SO. Wagner himself loathed the presentation of ‘bleeding chunks’ of his music dramas in the concert hall. And Vlieger’s arrangement is little more than a series of orchestral highlights sticky taped together with brief bridging passages.
But for all that, Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC SO demonstrated a real flair for and affinity with Wagner’s music. So much so, that one could imagine them doing a better job in the pit than some of the more established, and complacent, opera house orchestras. Wigglesworth conjured up a murky Rhine at the start, swelling up into the Rhine Maiden’s glorious celebration of life and love. The Magic Fire music crackled and dazzled, while the Forest Murmurs section impressionistic in its subtlety. Principal horn Martin Owen suffered an early blip in Siegfried’s heroic prelude to the slaying of Fafner, but thereafter led a glorious brass ensemble in the Rhine Journey and Funeral Music. Brünnhilde’s Immolation was laden with drama and grandeur but could not quite dispel the feeling that it would all have been a lot better with the vocal parts left in.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk