Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Davis @ Barbican Hall, London

23 March 2012

The BBC Symphony Orchestra and its ebullient conductor laureate Andrew Davis returned to the Barbican Hall with a finely balanced programme of contemporary and not-so-new classics.

Hugh Wood’s Violin Concerto No. 2 received its London premiere, having first been performed by Alexandra Wood and the Milton Keynes City Orchestra under Sian Edwards in January 2009. The concerto’s late showing in the capital is a bit of a surprise, given its immediacy and attractive lyricism. The solo part is technically tricky, but not overtly so, and the writing conveys its simple message effectively. The work owes much to Alban Berg’s concerto — particularly in the opening Allegro and in the central Larghetto — with its clear melodic lines and occasional dips into serialism.

Soloist Anthony Marwood communicated the work’s mood shifts effectively, without descending into sentimentalism or overplaying its more virtuosic passages. The fairly plain orchestration left the BBCSO and Andrew Davis rather under-employed during the concerto’s 25 minutes of running time. In the programme notes Wood explained that he had cut the work down to size during revisions prior to the premiere in 2009. But for the sake of a fuller musical experience, one rather wished he hadn’t.

Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time is often cited as a landmark in modern British music, yet nowadays it sounds rather dated. The obscure libretto by the composer doesn’t help. This is a disjointed and meandering account of a young Polish Jew’s shooting dead of a Nazi diplomat in Paris in 1938, interspersed with Biblical references and strands of Tippett’s own pacifist philosophy. Nevertheless, many of its musical sections make for powerful listening. Davis exercised a gentle control over the score, giving full consideration to the quieter passages, and stoking up the drama in the larger-scale movements. The BBC Symphony Chorus was on particularly fine form, with carefully judged dynamics and clear, expressive diction throughout.

The four vocal soloists gave a good account of their roles, although there were marked differences in their individual contributions. Bass Matthew Rose exerted power and authority as the narrator, while mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill gave a solid but slightly dry performance — more a reflection of the small and simple part allotted to her than an indictment of her singing abilities. Tenor John Mark Ainsley, standing in for Toby Spence, didn’t really invoke the youthful yearning of the innocent ‘Boy’ character. Soprano Nicole Cabell’s ringing tone rose head and shoulders above the rest. She demonstrated a flair for dramatic intensity, particularly when joined by the chorus in Tippett’s sublime and justly famous spiritual settings.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk

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