Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBCSO/Robertson @ Barbican Hall, London

27 November 2009

David Robertson took a typically intelligent, if eclectic, approach to his first appearance this season with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The orchestra’s principal guest conductor is already well-known to Barbican audiences for his short series of multimedia presentations on the works of Debussy and Bartok.

For this concert, he adopted the loose theme of pupil-teacher-colleague relationships.

The opening work, Josquin des Prez’s Nymphes des Bois, was written around 1497 to commemorate the death of his fellow Franco-Flemish composer and possible teacher Johannes Ockeghem. At just six minutes, it was a short and unusual choice to begin the programme. But as a simple curtain raiser it worked well enough, and gave a sneak preview of the BBC Symphony Chorus in the second half.

Leaping almost five centuries ahead to Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna was a bit of a shock. The piece was composed in 1974-75. Like des Prez’s lament, it commemorates the death of a musician that of Bruno Maderna, the composer, conductor and friend of Boulez who co-conducted the premiere of Stockhausen’s Gruppen with him in 1958. Like Gruppen, Boulez’s Rituel sees the sharp segmentation of the orchestra, including a percussion section seated in the balcony of the Barbican Hall.

The work combines austere ceremonial passages with repeated flourishes on gongs and woodwind. Yet despite its apparent modernity, the piece sounded oddly old-fashioned. Its repetitiveness, thematic inflexibility and lack of instrumental variation made it rather hard work on the listener. Not that there was anything dull about the BBC SO’s playing, or Robertson’s conducting. Energetic and perfectly disciplined, they did full justice to the piece.

The orchestra and chorus were back on more familiar territory with Mozart’s Requiem another lamentation for the dead, this time possibly Mozart’s own, completed by his pupil Franz Sssmayer. The main problem throughout this performance was that the chorus was too large. The top heavy singers at times overwhelmed a smallish orchestra of strings, trombones and low woodwind. Nevertheless, there were many highlights. The sense of pain and despair in the Lacrymosa was palpable, while the BBC SO Chorus’s ethereal singing of the Agnus Dei showed quite clearly that this was mainly Mozart’s handiwork, not Sssmayer’s.

The performance was enhanced by four splendid soloists soprano Elizabeth Watts, mezzo Anna Stephany, tenor Ed Lyon and bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu. All four gave a rounded, satisfying reading of the Tuba mirum and Ricordare. Watts and Lyon were on particularly fine form. Despite this, all four soloists seemed caught off guard in the Domine Jesu and were hard pressed to keep up with Robertson’s galloping tempo. The Sanctus, too, sounded rather angular and clunky. Not the best Requiem ever played, but definitely one to savour.

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