The BBC Symphony Orchestras 80th birthday season got off to a thrilling start with a judiciously chosen programme of works which, in the first half at least, explored the issues of love and loss through music.
The orchestras chief conductor, Jiř Bělohlvek, is no stranger to Wagners glorious, if often self-indulgent paean to love and death, Tristan und Isolde having conducted the work at Glyndebourne, so it came as no surprise that this performance of the Prelude and Liebestod glowed with such an innate sense of theatricality. The playing of the BBCSO was warm and glowing and despite being in concert form (and without a soprano to do full justice to the ending) had an epic sweep that one only usually encounters in the opera house.
This was followed by the UK premiere of Peter Liebersons Neruda Songs which he wrote for his wife, the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. The songs were commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and performed by the mezzo soprano not long before she died tragically early in 2006. Few singers matched her for intensity of delivery or authenticity of emotion, and if theres one singer who could safely be said to follow in her footsteps then that would be Sarah Connolly, who gave a gloriously impassioned reading of these songs, set to love poems by Pablo Neruda.
They are such a personal expression of love between the composer and his wife, that one almost has to overcome a sense of voyeurism when listening to them, but Connolly more than did them justice and they deserve to be heard more frequently, as Lieberson deploys an almost quasi-romantic harmonic idiom, which is underpinned by an orchestral palette made up of wonderful colours. A recording is available on Nonesuch of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson giving the Boston premiere of the Neruda Songs under James Levine, which is essential listening.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Dvořks Symphony No. 7 in D minor and given Bělohlvek has this music coursing through his veins, it came as no surprise that this was as thrilling a performance of this symphony as youre likely to hear. Speeds were on the fast side but this spurred all sections of the BBCSO on to play their hearts out. All in all this was a pretty sensational start to their 80th birthday celebrations.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk