mon 22/07/2024

BBC Singers, BBCSO, Pons, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Singers, BBCSO, Pons, Barbican

BBC Singers, BBCSO, Pons, Barbican

Blue skies from Respighi and Strauss, seasonal mystery from Brett Dean

Botticelli's 'Adoration of the Magi', inspiration for Respighi

Had the BBC Symphony Orchestra been at full stretch, rather than in the neoclassical and otherwise selective formations of last night’s concert, it might have outnumbered the live audience. Perhaps I exaggerate, but not much; this was never going to be a box-office hit. A big-name soloist might have made a difference.

But just about every orchestral principal last night was a star, thanks to the cornucopia of solos in Respighi’s Trittico botticelliano and Strauss’s Suite from Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Besides, the programming was clever and satisfying, no doubt about it, with the blue skies of Strauss and Respighi offset by the darker colours and mysteries of Brett Dean’s The Annunciation.

The Australian composer and former Berlin Philharmonic viola player is the BBCSO’s new Artist in Residence. It’s not a bad choice, if the four-movement The Annunciation, set to epiphanic poems by compatriot Graeme William Ellis and composed for Leipzig’s Thomanerchor, is a star in the east of things to come. I’ve not been left with huge impressions by previous works, but this one seems to have more obvious direction, thanks to the text, and the textures are always absorbing.

Brett DeanThe “Star out of Jacob” announced by Numbers in Dean’s Prelude (the composer pictured right by Pawel Kopczynski) seems to rise out of the pond in which Berg’s Wozzeck drowned: key to the precisely-scored murk here is the sound of three clarinets, complemented by the same number of horns, violas and cellos, plus two basses and harp. Dean’s own instrument multiplied projects anguished activity. The choir – the BBC Singers in top, luminous form - anchors the Three Kings’ arrival at the Jerusalem stable with consonant harmonies and unfolds riches with high-line starbursts in the final Incantation.

Dean’s realization of what the poems convey and their execution under conductor Josep Pons are both impeccable; but beware waxing lyrical about “sound world” – it usually means that the actual substance is less than wonderful, and on a first hearing that’s my impression (scores were being shelled out, but I didn’t get one).

Ideas came light and fast in the flanking gems of the evening. Respighi’s Botticelli pictures wrap the ancient airs and dances he would later treat more chastely in typically brilliant orchestration: Vivaldian flares for violins to usher in "La primavera" (Spring), discreet percussion, celesta and piano splashes at the heart of another Adoration of the Magi and the bright air around Venus rising from the sea precisely but still magically etched under Pons’s easy direction around Debussyan wind solos.

It’s hard to believe that all this comes with no heavy brass and timpani, so full is the impression. We hear the brilliance of the opening to The Pines of Rome and orientalisms anticipating the cinemascope east of the ballet Belkis, Queen of Sheba: both Proms hits earlier in the year, so this made a satisfying last visit to Respighi’s colourful world (more appropriate still would have been the Sinfonia Drammatica begun in horror at the First World War in 1914).

Natalie CheeI’d pinned down solo-wind credit to the dialogues of Daniel Pailthorpe’s magical flute and Graham Sheen’s bassoon creating the dream-world of Respighi’s sea-borne Venus, but accolades accumulated as Strauss throws every player a choice bone in his incidental music to Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Le bourgeois gentilhomme – the “little Molière project” of 1912 which grew to embrace the opera we know as Ariadne auf Naxos, only to be refashioned without the opera and more set pieces for comic Monsieur Jourdain’s discomforture in 1918. Oboist Richard Simpson lilted the Overture’s Sicilienne with surprising muscle; James Burke audaciously freed up the birdsong from the barline when the concluding banquet of culinary delights prompting a parallel feast of Straussian quotation served up a dish of quails.

Neoclassical way before the term was slapped on Stravinsky in the late 1920s, and five years before Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony, the Bourgeois gentilhomme music's freedom parallels Stravinsky’s later achievements in that we think we’re in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – especially in the central movements taken directly from Lully, Molière's original composer – only to veer into the early 20th with the riches of the 10-minute dinner. If anything, Pons over-romanticised passages like the deliciously sentimental cello solo to accompany the leg of mutton – bleating horn sheep around the instrument of Strauss’s Don Quixote – but that was fine given the high-lying sweetness of Susan Monks’s playing.It was a joy to watch how Strauss distributes the selective string parts especially - something we could have done with seeing on the previous evening when in equally delicious fare by Lully's superior Rameau William Christie's Les Arts Florissants were all but hidden at the back of the Barbican platform.

Most remarkable was the second featured Australian in the programme, guest leader Natalie Chee (pictured above), as the polonaise-dancing tailor: on the umpteen recordings I own of this lovable work, no violinist plays with such perfect intonation and spirit. So if anyone should get the vacant leader post, it has to be her. Pons may have imposed a slightly heavy view on the featherlight minuets and gavottes, but there was surprising sensuousness in the final waltz of the kitchen boy, and it never stopped the BBCSO sounding like an army of generals. No London orchestra is on better form at the moment

Most remarkable was guest leader Natalie Chee as Strauss's polonaise-dancing tailor


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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