Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Knussen @ Barbican Hall, London

13 January 2012

The BBC Symphony Orchestra kicked off its Spring season with a mix of the old-ish and the new, reflecting its talents at interpreting seminal works from the twentieth century and modern contemporary music.

The new kid on the block was Alexander Goehrs When Adam Fell a BBC commission. It takes its name from a traditional chorale, and is based on a bass which Bach invented for his own setting. Aural fragments from the bass were fleetingly discernible amid the chromatic complexities of the orchestration. But after the attractive silvery textures of the works opening, there was something cold and dispassionate about the whole thing. As is commonplace with world premieres, the piece received a rapturous reception from the audience: one suspected that the applause was more in celebration of a grand old man of British music (Goehr turns 80 this year) rather than an appreciation of the work itself.

Much the same could be said of Niccol Castiglionis Concerto. A mere six minutes long (so short, in fact that conductor Oliver Knussen felt bound to repeat it), the work received its UK premiere at the concert, despite having been completed in 1963. It really is typical of its time edgy, rhythmic and complex in its handling of musical themes and instrumental combinations. But again, there was a kind of intellectual isolation about the piece rather like Castiglioni himself, who before his death in 1996 remained on the outer fringe of contemporary music.

More immediate appeal arose from Nikolay Myaskovskys Symphony No. 10. A friend and older contemporary of Prokofiev, Myaskovsky is little known outside Russia, although champions of his music like Knussen and Valery Gergiev are beginning to open up his sound world to a wider audience. Just 16 minutes long, his one-movement tenth symphony was an attempt to blend the Tchaikovskyan symphonic tradition with the Silver Age trail blazed by the likes of Scriabin. For his 1927 audience, Myaskovskys mission failed, but the Barbican Hall listeners were drawn in by the musics boundless energy and complicated textures. The BBC SOs woodwind section was on particularly fine form, and guest leader Andrew Haveron was deservedly singled out by Knussen for his exceptional solo violin playing.

Schoenbergs 1906 Chamber Symphony No. 1 made for an appropriate conclusion to the concert. Its lush Romanticism and grounding in traditional tonality automatically makes for appealing listening, but it also points towards the composers eventual break with harmonic convention and his fading desire for public and critical approval. Knussen and the BBC SO opted to perform Schoenbergs 1935 revision, which increases the scoring from 15 players to a huge orchestra. This makes the symphony sound rather overblown in parts, and is antithetical to the composers original intention of developing the symphonic form by reducing it in scale. Nevertheless, the orchestra still managed to delineate its tight, single-movement structure with clarity, and they provided plenty of individual performances of impressive virtuosity.

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

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