Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Pons @ Barbican Hall, London

8 December 2012

Outwardly an eclectic programme, this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Josep Pons contained an inner logic, making for broadly satisfying listening. For a start, vocal music — and opera in particular — were key elements in the careers of both Giuseppe Verdi and Luciano Berio. More directly, Berio arranged and orchestrated eight of Verdi’s early Romances for tenor.

These songs (dating from between 1835 and 1847) were originally accompanied by piano, but re-cast for a nineteenth century-sized orchestra by Berio in 1991. Collectively they are real gems, expressing a range of sentiments, from the gentle melancholy of In a lonely room, through the pained religiosity of Oh incline, Mother of Sorrows, to the celebratory swagger of Drinking Song. Strangely, tenor Atalla Ayan shied away from the nuanced individuality of each song, opting instead to present them as a series of quasi-operatic numbers. Mindful perhaps of his forthcoming appearances on stage, this worked well enough, but Pons and the BBCSO fared much better in their sensitive handling of Berio’s orchestral passages which linked each song.

This was preceded by a resounding rendition of Berio’s Sinfonia. First performed in 1968 following a New York Philharmonic commission, and revised a year later with an extra concluding movement, the symphony is a spectacular exposition on the passage of time, memory and past versus future. The eight members of Synergy Vocals sat, microphones in hand, in a square in front of the conductor, suggesting both their integration with and separation from the orchestra. Although their conversational babblings were occasionally obscured by the greater weight of the orchestra, they ably moved across a range of stylistic genres, from the operatic, to folk-inspired patter. Josep Pons held together Berio’s massive score in a seamless flow, particularly during the massive third movement, with its multifarious musical quotations (including La Mer, La Valse, The Rite of Spring, The Ring and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony). All of this was fused in an ironic deconstruction of the scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony.

The BBCSO was joined by the BBC Symphony Chorus for the comparative rarity of Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces. These settings of liturgical texts were variously penned in the 1880s and 1890s during the composer’s on-off retirement from the operatic stage. The opening Ave Maria sounded a little unsteady, with the chorus seemingly uncomfortable with the Barbican Hall acoustics. The ensuing Stabat Mater was much more confidently delivered, with the Chorus’s poised and subtle expressivity greatly adding to the significance of this heartfelt work. The a cappella Laudi all Vergine Maria was less riveting, and wobbled a bit tonally, but the more substantial Te Teum contained more memorable moments, not least soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon’s final solo lines, providing a gentle, if unresolved, ending.

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

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