Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Jiri Belohlavek @ Barbican Hall, London

29 September 2006

If there was one reason to catch this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jir Belohlvek, it was the world premiere of Jonathan Dove’s Hojoki (An Account of My Hut).

The piece sets to music the text of an 800-year-old essay by a Japanese author, Kamo no Chomei, which is a poetic and symbolic account of a man’s life.

A quick read (in an English translation by Donald Keene) raises doubts about its suitability for musical interpretation.

There is little rhythmic continuity and the language is often verbose how many songs contain words such as “undependability”? It is to Dove’s credit that he manages to take such a text and create a brilliant piece of music out of it. From the magical, flute infested opening, it is obvious that this will be something special. The composer exploits orchestral sonorities in every passage, finding beauty in the growling of a solo tuba here; a passage of string imitation there.

The translucent scoring also allows every word of the text to emerge clearly, which it did when sung so movingly by counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo. David Daniels was sadly indisposed, and his replacement had only flown to England a few days previously. In the circumstances, it was difficult to imagine a better performance. After a few wobbles early on, Zazzo’s voice grew in stature and resonance impressively. He made sure to enunciate every syllable of the text, while his expressive delivery allowed one to ignore some overly flamboyant hand movements.

Dove’s piece is certainly of sufficient interest for it to enter the repertoire. If there is a criticism, it is an occasional lack of subtlety which suggests that the music is being too strongly dictated by the text. The evocation of an earthquake, for example, is brash and unconvincing. Or was the problem more that the BBCSO’s playing did not produce the emotional pull that the composition wanted?

Elsewhere, this was certainly the case. Belohlvek was appointed Chief Conductor of the orchestra in July, and the orchestra is certainly sounding like an excellent unit. Now it seems that it needs a firm injection of passion. It is rare to find an Eroica so bland as the one we had in the second half here. Beethoven’s Third Symphony calls for an impassioned delivery, yet everything about this suggested emotional detachment

The first movement was the worst. The opening statements were neither crisp nor weighty; brass came in late; cellos had their own idea of pitching; the recapitulation of the first section was spoiled by some erratic tempo changes. At least some sense of Beethoven’s almost violently emphatic style came through in the pounding tutti chords, but elsewhere ideas sporadically piled upon one another. The funeral march demands more of a sense of structure than we had here, while an athletic start to both third and fourth movements could not stop both of them descending into routine melodrama. Even when the playing was professional and accurate, one wanted something more.

Previously, Gareth Wood’s dreary Listen Up! Fanfare did not impress, while Dvork’s A major Suite also seemed chilly and distant. Belohlvek showed us the luminous textures without asking us to immerse ourselves in them, and consequently the performance was a disappointment. The BBCSO have been whipped into shape: now they need to make more use of their talents.

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