Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO present a quirky programme of Bacewicz, bassoon and Dvořák

3 February 2023

Rare, but welcome music at the Barbican.

Barbican Centre

Barbican Centre (Photo: Dion Barrett)

The rich and complex music of Poland’s mid century composer Grażyna Bacewicz is sadly absent from concert programmes, so, while a performance of her six minute Overture for orchestra was a welcome surprise, it felt perhaps a little tokenistic. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo gave it a well-rounded performance, though, taking its fusion of 19th century Romanticism imbued with 20th century harmonic twists and nuancing every shade of its mood swings from the opening jolly brass fanfare, through the pastoral calm of its short Andante to the frenetic sawing from the low strings at its close.

Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto is a bit of an oddity. The golden age of Baroque bassoon concerti was over, and perhaps Mozart’s was a bit of a retrospective essay in the form. Certainly, as it’s a pre-Viennese work, it’s not Mozart at his most innovative, and tends to be a little ‘stock Classical concerto’ – but it’s still Mozart, and has touches of humour about it, and a need for virtuosic playing. The way to approach it, then, is probably with unconscious élan and a degree of showmanship. Which – with Julie Price (BBCSO’s principal bassoon) as soloist – was exactly the performance given, to great effect. Under Oramo, the orchestra produced a solid sound that was nonetheless delicately textured and well controlled for dynamic. Price’s performance was a lesson not only in virtuosic playing, but in excellent audience communication; stepping onto and off her high stool, she danced with her instrument, pointing up physically all of the changing colours in Mozart’s agile writing from the humour of the first movement, through the lyricism of the second, to the downright showiness of the final minuet/rondo (taken at breakneck speed).

Elgar’s 1910 Romance for bassoon and orchestra is another performance rarity, and, from the opening disquieted string passage, you immediately know who wrote it. Only six minutes long, it’s crammed full of Elgarian orchestral tropes – such as the little melodic fragments that never quite find resolution – over which the bassoon’s long, wistful lines are arranged to highlight its range and timbres. The orchestra’s sensitive understanding of Elgar’s characterful rapid dynamic swerves was to the fore, and Price’s playing was immaculate, showcasing the instrument’s capabilities in a polished and empathetic account. Despite the first-rate performance, though, the work failed to hit the spot; somehow, Elgar’s usual ability to summon emotion gets lost in his overthought writing, and the piece never quite finds its direction, such that one is glad to have heard it, but won’t be rushing out to find a recording of it.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo gave it a well-rounded performance…

Dvořák’s sempiternally sunny eighth symphony closed the programme, and here, Oramo and the orchestra were on top form, giving the work an excitingly nuanced performance in which the composer’s Bohemian roots really stood out in the light touches given to the more ‘folksy’ material in the symphony that felt as though, musically, the lighting plot had suddenly undergone dramatic change.

If the earlier part of the evening had been bassoon oriented, in this symphony it’s its string sibling, the ‘cello, that’s the star, and the LSO’s section revelled in all the material that Dvořák so generously gives them – the opening warm passages (taken quite briskly) of the first movement, the beautifully matched duet with the horns later in that movement, and the glorious melody at the beginning of the final movement. Speaking of horns, these too, were in fine fettle, giving us some dramatic swoops in the first movement, and some thrilling trills in the last.

The sticking point of the symphony is often the second movement, whose first part always feels like a series of introductions to a grand tune that never quite happens. There’s a lot of variance in the orchestral texture across these, and Oramo chose to highlight the contrasts; it’s probably the best way of offsetting the lack of melodic payoff, but its downside is that it also highlights it. In any event, the emphasised lilt of the third movement’s glittery waltz, and the stunning pullback in dynamic just before the knockabout finale of the fourth movement were more than adequate compensation.

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