First things first the Barbican was criminally empty for this concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.
Those who did not attend (and that is quite a few since 50% of the seats appeared to be vacant) missed an often spectacular performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.
Sadly, those who did attend had to sit through a UK premiere from Philippe Fnelon, which had much to commend it but, almost inevitably, not enough.
The work, Gloria, is set for orchestra alone, and boasts no structure, a lot of dissonance and a thankfully short running time. The squealing, probing opening with its high violins and hushed percussion whispers suggests a struggle to escape, both from the plodding 4/4 time signature, and indeed from the trappings of tonal music. The work soon takes the form of a wild beast alternately roaming free and raging furiously from behind cage bars. Cue many frantically bowed string chords, trombone melodies and much violence from the timpani.
With all the generous orchestrations and effective contrasts of mood, there is a worthwhile piece in here somewhere. The irony is that, while the work attempts to transcend the Classical notions of harmony, rhythm and structure, its (now rather old hat) preoccupation with ugly dissonance and the lack of any noticeable form makes it seem anything but liberated. Rather, it plods along, with atonal brass, arhythmic percussion and only irritation to be derived from the maddeningly brief snatches of diatonic harmony at its conclusion (given sensibly to the horns). It could mean anything, and with string vibrato so wide that ships could have sailed through and many a raised eyebrow from the players, this performance found only monotony in the writing.
Perhaps Fnelon should study Poulenc’s composition of the same name, which managed to redeem the first half to some extent. This piece requires a delicate, humorous touch and Davis provided just that, taking every movement on its own terms and phrasing each idea so that some poor horn intonation in the first movement and a couple of other slips were brushed over with ease.
The BBC Symphony Chorus was fine, though the basses’ cries of Laudamus te in the second movement were very dull and consonants were frequently imprecise. Christine Brewer took the solo soprano role and displayed an expressive, warm tone that sounded just a tad artificial when vibrato was not used. Her phrasing and lyricism were superb; her control was astounding only some strident Amens at the end were problematic.
And finally Davis led an excellent account of the Symphonie fantastique, finding every colour in the astonishing score and revelling in it. The final two movements in particular suggested an increasing loss of control, as tempi picked up (to breaking point by the end of the final Witches Sabbath), playing became wilder and emotions veered towards the breathtaking climax. The slow movement’s solo cor anglais was near perfect, the tubas in the last movement were a little hemmed in by the acoustic but still they resonated.
The main problem with this performance was the first violins, and this is not the first time that their inadequacies have been noticed. Phrasing is fine, but staying together is something of a challenge: especially in the upper regions, pitches splice and coordination is lost. The second movement Ball melody was so inaccurate that it surely must have been deliberate, but the balance in the following Adagio was inexcusably precarious. In the end, the fire of the orchestral performance was such that this could be excused, but the violins undoubtedly need whipping into shape.
Otherwise, this was a great Berlioz interpretation and a great way to end a generally commendable concert.