BBC Concert Orchestra – Barry Wordsworth’s 60th-Birthday

Vaughan Williams
Job – A Masque for Dancing
Piazzolla, arr. Desiatnikov
The Four Seasons of Buenos Aries
La valse – poème choreographique

Chris Garrick (violin)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 19 February, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Barry WordsworthBy stretching several points, and suspending disbelief part of the time, one was able to draw a thread of music for dance through this oddly planned programme, which celebrated Barry Wordsworth’s 60th-birthday. But no amount of self-justification could excuse the juxtaposition of a group of relatively worthless pieces between two undoubted masterpieces, the first of which was Vaughan Williams’s Job. This extraordinarily visionary work, in every sense, received a performance of considerable merit, marred only by stupid applause from one section of the audience, cutting into the first break in the music.

Barry Wordsworth knows this score intimately, and it was an additional pleasure to note the presence of a number of well-known players in the orchestra – musicians who are not so regularly encountered as they once were – but not even this fine account could entirely rid one of the lasting impression that this score consistently falls between several stools – as, it would seem, does any ballet based upon religious subjects. Job is probably best heard as a concert piece, but its symphonic length does not reflect inherently symphonic composition. Nor is it properly balanced with regard to music for dancing, although it does contain some of Vaughan Williams’s most inspired music. Job is rarely performed in the concert hall and this was an exceptional performance. One greatly admired Wordsworth’s grasp and control of the myriad tempos and characterisation of this remarkable composition.

The final work, Ravel’s La valse did not receive so satisfying a reading: given that the string strength of this orchestra is relatively thin for such a voluptuous score (but not for the Vaughan Williams) and in which Wordsworth should have exercised a restraining hand with regard to the percussion, which tended to smother the rest of the orchestra in a bombardment of sound that would have reminded Ravel of his experiences in the First War trenches.

Chris GarrickThe central music in the concert was provided by The Four Seasons of Buenos Aries, ostensibly by the virtually ubiquitous (nowadays) Astor Piazzolla, as edited and arranged by Leonid Desiatnikov for Gidon Kremer. The soloist was Chris Garrick, who played well enough, but these essentially trivial and musically very thin pieces need far more in the way of style and accuracy than they received here if they are to convince – performances such as they received at the hands of the conductor-less Korean orchestra Sejong at Cadogan Hall last June.

Given that it was felt necessary to have this music at all, matters would have been considerably improved had the string strength been reduced by half, the concertos been given without a conductor (although Wordsworth directed efficiently and to his own choreography as if auditioning for “Strictly Come Dancing”), and performed with a greater sense of character (Buenos Aries is noted for a number of human activities), which – despite quotations from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – showed up the real problem with this music: there is nothing in it, unlike Vivaldi’s masterpieces, to tell us which of the seasons we are listening to, implying that in Buenos Aries they are interchangeable and indistinguishable.

Quite why this inferior music was considered suitable to mark Wordsworth’s 60th is a mystery, for it handed a loaded gun to those who claim that the ‘dumbing-down’ of BBC Radio 3 is now irreversible, although one must commend the BBC Concert Orchestra for maintaining a proper dress sense, with the gentlemen in white tie and tails, unlike their counterparts in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

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