A Handshake in the Dark

A Shropshire Lad
A Handshake in the Dark [BBC commission: world premiere]
Friede auf Erden, Op.13 [Revised Version]
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Among the new commissions featured in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current season, that from Michael Nyman was of interest inasmuch as it offered to chance to hear how a composer who has long had his own way of doing things tackled a medium with its basis in the ‘British Choral Tradition’.

In the event, “A Handshake in the Dark” (2007) proved a disappointment. The text, adapted from the collection “Letters to my Brother” by the Iraqi-born poet Jamal Jumá (and sensitively translated by Salaam Yousif), has a natural expressive power in the way it deals with the capture and imprisonment of the poet’s brother in the First Gulf War – with its inevitable resonance for the more recent conflict in Iraq in particular and, indeed, armed hostility and its cultural impact on the Middle East in general.

Nyman has sought to maximise its potential through his juxtaposing and interweaving verse in choral writing that is frequently and often intricately sub-divided. Here lies the crux of the problem, in that the degree to which text and music are integrated has precluded most of the former being perceived over the work’s course – save for occasional declaimed phrases (not least, “Behold, The New World Order” at the close) which thereby take on the feel more of sound-bites than of focal-points. Add to this the shimmering but unvaried texture, the lucid but schematic harmonies and also the pulsating but evened-out rhythms, and the work’s impact palled long before its 33 minutes were through. The BBC Symphony Chorus gave its collective all in what was a vibrant and well-prepared premiere, but this excursion into tradition by a nominally ‘left-field’ composer was a distinctly muted success.

Although they are hardly comparable, the failings of Nyman’s piece were thrown into starker relief by the rare performance of Schoenberg’s (originally a cappella “Friede auf Erden” (1907) after the interval. This setting of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer’s eulogy to the beneficence of peace, in what the composer later termed “an illusion for mixed chorus”, drew from him an expressively diverse yet also cumulative response that – poised on the brink of his ‘abandonment’ of tonality – brings out an ambivalence of meaning at odds with the poem’s intention but not its implication. Its harmonic density and contrapuntal intricacy are still a challenge to choirs, and this rendition offered a rare opportunity to experience the piece in Schoenberg’s 1911 version with wind and string accompaniment (the latter sensibly enlarged here) – thus enabling its qualities fully to be conveyed in what was an attentive and dedicated performance.

These two very different works, written a century apart, responded equally well to the secure and undemonstrative direction of John Storgårds – here making a welcome return visit to the BBCSO. His breadth of repertoire was further underlined by the orchestral pieces chosen to frame the evening. George Butterworth’s evocative rhapsody A Shropshire Lad (1912) was given an expansive but also cohesive reading; as much an evocation of time and place as of Housman’s verse, its climaxes were powerfully realised, with only a slight lack of purpose to offset the fateful inevitability of its close.

To end the concert, Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony (1919). If hardly an incandescent reading to set with the finest (and there have been some memorable ones in London over the past decade), this account impressed through the quiet conviction with which Storgårds paced the opening movement – making the transition between its once separate halves with a sure grasp of how the scherzo part had been arrived at and where it was headed. He caught the insouciance yet also ominous feel of the second movement, enhanced by the some piquant woodwind playing, then unfolded the finale with a real sense of its tonal amplitude and energy. Not so overwhelming as they can be, the indelible final chords were punctually and decisively dispatched – setting the seal on a sympathetic performance.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 12 March at 7 p.m.

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