Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Les illuminations
Amériques [Revised Version]

John Mark Ainsley (tenor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
James Conlon

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 May, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A thoughtfully planned programme rich in pertinent associations and contrasts. If the first half was intermittently inspired, the second (song-cycle and sonic blockbuster) proved compelling.

The sea-related first half began with a less than settled ‘Dawn’ (strings a little uncertain and, overall, with a lack of atmosphere and edge), the first of the potent orchestral scenes that, in context, drive Britten’s opera forward. Vivid etching of sea-spray and gulls’ cries made ‘Sunday Morning’ more suggestible with ‘Moonlight’ given enough subterranean menace to remind of the closed-community intrigue at the heart of the work. ‘Storm’, while musically auspicious, lacked elemental force.

Debussy’s masterpiece, which James Conlon conducted from memory, lacked flexibility at times. Although Conlon had painstakingly prepared the inner workings of the score (much ‘unusual’ detail revealed), his desire to present a ‘symphony manqué’ (not unreasonable given Debussy’s epithet), something enhanced by minimal pauses between movements, also compromised much-needed flexibility. Being scrupulous is one thing, being over-attentive another. Certainly there was a gathering of spirits during ‘Jeux de vagues’ and at various points elsewhere, but the peaks (waves?) didn’t have enough follow-through to make the whole. Conlon eschewed the composer-removed, Ansermet-restored ‘fanfares’ in the finale, leaving the listener’s inner-ear to add them!

In some passages of the Sea Interludes, Conlon vividly sculptured Britten’s notation to the extent that a kinship with Janáček was suggested. In the composer’s setting of Rimbaud, Conlon ensured that Britten’s writing for string orchestra bristled with incident, a survey of the score that had been intensively assembled and which revealed not only how imaginative Britten was but also how adventurous. John Mark Ainsley, ranging from declamatory to tender via athletic, was similarly striking, his word-painting compelling from first syllable to last, ‘Royauté’ (Royalty) given with a fine swagger.

Such motivation also informed Amériques, Edgard Varèse’s New York-inspired, Rite of Spring-related extravaganza completed in 1921 and revised (having been performed under Stokowski’s direction) in 1927. Such revision reduced the orchestra (including off-stage brass) while remaining ‘large’ and excised not only portions of music but exotica such as a cyclone whistle and a steamboat whistle. In this superb performance, Conlon’s exemplary instrumental balances and long-term values ensured that the music was never debased to gratuitous decibels; indeed, with the furthest-away ceiling-mounted acoustic boards unusually tilted north to south, the Barbican ‘sound’ seemed more-attractively mellower (with no compromise of impact) than can be the case and which made the percussion (of which Varèse uses plenty) less pinging and ambient than it can be in the ‘normal’ (LSO) acoustic.

In music with its potential to be misunderstood (inevitably somebody found the siren amusing) this wonderfully sophisticated score – which is as alluring and dancing as it is riotous – may be heard (today) as a ‘warning’ for our noise-obsessed society (for example, the ghastly muzak that plagues some shops, banks and restaurants – and best avoided) – and which probably has no parallels in its capacity to mix time and strata until Harrison Birtwistle arrived on the scene, and coincidentally so the latter will tell you.

According to the printed programme this concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 8 May at 7.30; according to “Radio Times” the concert to be listened to then will be the one in Leeds Town Hall on 6 May, with John Adams’s “Harmonium” replacing Amériques. Adams doesn’t need the exposure, Varèse does; and this exacting and revealing performance of Amériques demands the evening slot rather than being ‘lost’ in an afternoon compilation.

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