sat 25/06/2022

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Marc Minkowski, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Marc Minkowski, Barbican

BBC Symphony Orchestra, Marc Minkowski, Barbican

Smashing performance of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater in his anniversary year

It always repays to push a world-class orchestra beyond their comfort zone. The BBC Symphony's sound emerged from the refashioning hands of period specialist Marc Minkowski like a naked body from a cold shower: convulsively invigorated and invigorating all those that knocked into it. It was a joy to hear: the best, most intriguing period-playing I've heard for quite a while. For sure the orchestra were more comfortable in Stravinsky's Pulcinella, which went off like a spinning jenny, but the sounds Minkowski managed to elicit from the players in Pergolesi's Stabat Mater chilled the blood. More on all that later.
First to the birthday boy, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (main image) - the year marks the tercentenary of his birth - and the history that explains exactly why this composer is as important to the evolution of music as any of the other composers - Chopin, Schumann or Mahler - whose anniversaries we will celebrate in 2010.
Very little is, or has ever been, known about Pergolesi's incredibly short life (he died aged 26). Yet apocryphal stories abound. It tells us much about how meteoric his rise was. Such was his popularity - his Stabat Mater was the most reprinted score in the whole of the 18th century - that the need to fill in the gaps came very quick. (We know, for example, that a member of the audience struck his head with an orange at the premiere of his opera L’Olimpiade.)
The rise can be attributed to the fact that he was the Beethoven or Debussy of his day. That is, a pioneering precursor, a John the Baptist figure, ushering in a full half-century of French and Italian opera buffa. Without his clarifying, melodising operatic foundation stones there would be no bel canto, no Verdi or Puccini - or not as we know them.
His cause was furthered after his death in 1736 by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (opera composer as well as political theorist) during the terribly inconsequential-sounding Querelle des Bouffons (or War of the Comedians). In fact, the Querelle was hugely consequential, politically and artistically. It pitted French harmonists like Rameau (allied to the king, Louis XV and the nationalist camp) against Italophile melodists like Rousseau (allied to the queen, Maria Leszczyńska, and the encyclopaedists), who saw counterpoint as "a relic of barbarism and of bad taste, that only survives, like the doorways of our Gothic churches, to perpetuate the shame of those who had the patience to make it".
Pergolesi's Stabat Mater isn't quite so doctrinally clean of counterpoint; there is at least one very fine fugal unravelling at "Fac, ut ardeat", though most of the contrapuntal or harmonic searching is developed for colouristic effect above all, something Minkowski relished bringing out. And when you have an orchestra as good as the BBCSO this isn't as hard as it seems.
The portent that they levied in "Fac ut portem", the sinuous hush of the chromatic snaking in "Fac me vere tecum fiere" and the extraordinary textures of the unvibratoed strings - so much more expressive in metal to my ears - would give the technically up-and-down Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment a real run for their period money. Yet, however good the orchestra was, the star turn was undoubtedly contralto Nathalie Stutzmann whose ghostly, craning, unaffected but supremely affecting presence was mesmerising.
The opening duet with the bright little nymph, Marita Stolberg - so distressing in the shrill trills of "Cujus animam" - was almost unbearable, as Stutzmann sucked in a lungful and a half of air for the first sibilant "St", her mouth wide open, as if in a frozen Potemkin scream, a slow-motion decline. While the "Amen", the duo lapping against the orchestra, surged with a water's roar.
Before this, Pulcinella, Stravinsky's 20th-century neoclassical update of an 18th-century score, thought to have been by Pergolesi but now known to have been nicked from one of Pergolesi's colleagues, has little of this torment but much of the colour. What a piece it is: a perfect orchestral pinball machine, the ricocheting made so clear in Minkowski's clean, tight, lifted interpretation, the sounds finding themselves off the string and in the air most of the time. The extraordinarily skittish nature of the work cannot be better exemplified than in the 14th part, an Allegro, where the fragments of a melody move from trumpet to flute to strings to oboe to bassoon to flute to (again) strings to trumpets to tutti and finally to double basses within a matter of a few seconds.
Even singers contribute to this tangle, a fabulously rich but restrained Matthew Rose and Yann Beuron joining Marita Solberg for the challenging birdcalls that cap one hell of a musical jungle, thrillingly cut through.

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Re the last paragraph, Yan Beuron was indisposed and replaced by Julien Behr.

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