Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Total Immersion: Italian Radicals review – Martyn Brabbins and the BBCSO thrill at the Barbican

5 May 2024

A day devoted to Italy’s radical 20th century composers culminates in a blistering concert that exceeded all expectations.

Italian Radicals

The BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Sarah Jeynes)

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion weekends have become a regular fixture at the Barbican, offering an in depth exploration of a composer or musical genre by way of talks, chamber events and full-blown concerts. Their latest, ‘Italian Radicals’, took place in one day, and culminated in a concert on Sunday evening in the Barbican Hall, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, who was joined by a whole host of soloists – both instrumental and vocal.

On paper, an evening devoted to three composers, all born in the 1920s – Nono, Maderna and Berio, as well as the slightly older Dallapiccola looked challenging, to put it mildly. Two hours of Italian serialism, which I recall from my time at university reading music as being dry, theoretical and at times acrid, didn’t exactly set the pulses racing in advance, but it was time to challenge those preconceptions and assess music from this period afresh.

Few, if any, things are as rewarding as having your misconceptions quashed, as this superbly curated, brilliantly performed concert demonstrated. Indeed, this was one of the most genuinely exciting evenings I’ve spent in a concert hall for a long time, so it just goes to show that pushing yourself outside your comfort zone can be very fulfilling.

Arguably the most radical composer on the programme was Luigi Nono, whose centenary is this year. Politically charged, and outspoken on a whole range of issues, humanity, or the frailty of the human condition is a theme that runs through his work. His extraordinary work for large orchestra, soprano and tenor, Canti di vita e d’amore (Songs of Life and Love) and subtitled sul ponte di Hiroshima (on the bridge of Hiroshima), is a cry against fascism and the horrors of war. Written in 1961, the three part work draws on a different text for each section. 

The first, from Günther Anders’ Der Mann auf der Brücke: Tagebuch aus Hiroshima und Nagasaki (The Man on the Bridge: Diary from Hiroshima and Nagasaki), is loud, abrasive and jagged, requiring four percussionists and a battery of percussion to drive home the composer’s anger at the futility of nuclear war. Tenor John Findon held his own against the musical tumult, portraying the anguish vividly.

“…this was one of the most genuinely exciting evenings I’ve spent in a concert hall for a long time…”

Italian Radicals

Martyn Brabbins (Photo: Sarah Jeynes)

The mood changes in the second movement, which is based on Spanish poet and dissident Jesús López Pacheco’s poem Esta Noche (This Night). Nono changed the title to Djamila Boupacha, as he wanted to honour Boupacha who had become an international hero in the anti-colonialist struggle for Algerian liberation. This hauntingly beautiful unaccompanied section was mesmerisingly sung by soprano Anna Dennis who navigated Nono’s complex vocal lines without batting an eyelid, no mean feat given how challenging they were, and required her to sing at the very extremes of her range. The final movement, Tu (You) is based on a love poem by Italian poet Cesare Pavese, and brought both singers together – their voices blending mellifluously in this final love duet. This illuminating work deserves to be heard far and wide.

Maderna and Berio were both fascinated with how far you could explore and exploit an instrument’s musical range – in the process testing a performer’s skill to the limits. On the basis of Nicholas Daniel’s phenomenal oboe playing in Maderna’s Oboe Concerto No. 3, his skills seemed limitless. Opening with a series of staccato high pitch tones and trills, Daniel highlighted both his, and the instrument’s versatility. Maderna creates an engaging musical conversation between soloist and orchestra, as different themes weave their way between the two. At one point Daniel even puts his oboe aside, creating sounds with a single reed. His agility and musicianship were breathtaking, as was conductor Martyn Brabbins who brought out all the distinct colours of the work.

Similarly, Berio wrote a series of works for solo instruments, and here Thomas Lessels performed Parisi’s arrangement of Sequenza IXc for bass clarinet (originally scored for a standard B-flat clarinet) with dexterity and panache, revelling in the complexity of Berio’s writing which encapsulates the extremes of the instrument’s registers.

For the final work on the programme, the BBCSO were joined by the BBC Singers for a performance of Berio’s eclectic and seminal Sinfonia. Brabbins led an astonishingly assured reading that highlighted Berio’s daring originality. The famous third movement, where he recomposes that of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, is littered with musical references – The Rite of Spring, La Mer, Der Rosenkavalier – which all made their mark, while the amplified vocal interjections were brilliantly executed by the always excellent BBC Singers.

Throughout the evening, which began with a beguiling account of Dallapiccola’s Three Questions and Two Answers, the playing of all sections of the BBCSO was beyond reproach. And given this repertoire is far from standard concert fare, they really did excel, expertly guided by Brabbins, who understands this genre more than most.

A thrilling evening then, which was recorded for broadcast on 1 July. Not to be missed.

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