Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Robertson @ Barbican Hall, London

9 February 2007

Simon Bainbridge’s Diptych was hardly granted a glorious entry into the world on Friday evening, given that the Barbican hall was two thirds empty.

And if the premiere did not deserve fanfares, it displayed a high level of musical proficiency and more than enough material to warrant a second hearing.

The two parts of Diptych (here performed separately, on the composer’s instructions, with Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto sandwiched in between) are blocks of deliberately fragmented motifs, bound with strong suggestions of Classical harmony and structure.

Bainbridge’s programme note references Venice – the maze of canals being mirrored in the complexities of the score – and with this in mind, the first half especially is a remarkably effective piece of musical evocation. This is no romanticised ideal of the city, but rather the composition suggests the Venice of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, replete with mysterious, threatening alleys and dingy backwaters.

The orchestra – divided and subdivided – is treated with a pleasing, almost improvisatory freedom, and ideas are slid from section to section, sinisterly echoing and transforming along the way. Fragments appear and reappear in many guises, while soloists pop up from the orchestral canvas like gondolas, glinting in the sun. Part Two’s study of orchestral fragmentation is similarly virtuosic in style, suggesting if not specifically sounding like Alban Berg on more than one occasion.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the work’s elongated length will prove a problem in the concert hall. Even the opening of Part One, for all the hushed splendour of its barely audible timpani rolls and firmly delineated main theme, dragged here under the baton of David Robertson. And at 25 minutes, Part Two is a daunting stretch of conceptual ideas that required some effort to take in at one sitting.

Pianist Barry Douglas certainly had his fair share of ideas in the aforementioned concerto: his evocation of nature in the Adagio religioso was highly poetic; his jaunty rhythms and taxing runs in the last movement were tossed off with effortless precision and grace. This was indeed lucky, for the man’s fingers in the first movement produced a colourless tone that threatened to overpower the rustic humour of the score. The BBC Symphony Orchestra could not match entries on a couple of occasions, and the violins struggled at the start of the second movement, but this was nevertheless an accomplished and sensitive orchestral accompaniment.

And the orchestra was equally persuasive in Skryabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, a passionate and sensuously scored depiction of what the composer called cosmic love. Robertson did struggle to clarify the rhythm during some changes of tempo, but the BBCSO caressed both the amorous flutterings and transcendent desires of the score with impressively voluptuous tone and a Wagnerian idea about passion.

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