Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Jukka-Pekka Saraste @ Barbican Hall, London

12 May 2006

As this concert confirmed, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s self-proclaimed commitment to 20th and 21st Century music is extraordinarily strong. The UK premiere of Salonen’s Wing on Wing (2004) was enormously well executed, although the solo sopranos Anu Komsi and Piia Komsi were a little apprehensive at the start. Fellow Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste brought out the wind and water metaphors very well, and the buildup in energy throughout the work, particularly in section II, was immense.

Section III consisted of a heart-wrenching oboe solo, played to perfection. Another highlight was section IV, which featured the sopranos very impressive upper register and breath control, and the percussionists threw themselves into the work with aplomb. The ending of the work was also very impressive, with enough sound in the orchestra to give the conclusion of Schoenbergs Gurrelieder a run for its money. In all, it was a very impressive debut indeed.

Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony is a work that surely needs no introduction. The intense string opening, featuring the melancholic cello vibrato and depressing violas, made a striking start to the symphony. The dark and gloomy violin melody was tragic, sacred and painful, reminiscent of the spoils of war, especially when the violins played in unison. Having been dominated by strings thus far, the winds and brass did not fail to impress when it was time for their entry.

The famous Third movement was performed much faster than I expected but surprisingly, increasing the pace of the music only made it more furious and energetic. This was the most intense, most exciting third movement interpretation of Shostakovich 8 one could hope to hear.

Having expended so much effort on the third movement, the BBCSO could well be forgiven for losing steam in the fourth. Indeed, in the Passacaglia, the only noteworthy thing was the horn solo, which was so melancholic I found myself biting my lips and drawing blood.

In the last movement, it took a while for the orchestra to regain their energy and momentum. In a sense, the entire movement is a huge buildup of intensity, and the orchestra took their time about it. The first ten minutes of the movement were lethargic, but once the final climax arrived, the BBCSO pulled themselves together and gave such an affirmed culmination that I almost wish that Shostakovich had ended the work there.

Shostakovich, however, chose to recapitulate some motifs from the previous movements, and ended the symphony as he started, in the strings; the ending, with the high violin notes, was simply amazing. I think perhaps it was his way of allowing us to see the souls of the dead resting in peace after the spoils of war. In all, an immense performance.

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BBCSO/Jukka-Pekka Saraste @ Barbican Hall, London