BBC Symphony Orchestra 75th Anniversary Concert

Réflexions [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Symphony of Psalms

Emanuel Ax (piano)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 22 October, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert marked – to the day – the 75th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s first concert, and it was appropriate to mark the occasion with an evening of repertoire classics, along with a UK premiere to denote the crucial platform that the orchestra has provided for new music since 1930.

Réflexions (2004) by Elliott Carter is itself an 80th-birthday tribute to Pierre Boulez (chief conductor of the orchestra during the 1970s), and a miniaturised concerto for orchestra giving scope for incisive virtuosity. An initial six-note motif (B-O-U-L-E-Z) serves as the basis for a varied but coherent succession of ensemble episodes – alternating with a quirkily humorous solo for contrabass clarinet, a lithe duet for bassoon and cello, a brusque discourse for brass sextet and a duet for flutes which injects a welcome degree of pathos before the emphatic close.

All typically and engagingly Carterian, and performed with a commitment and not a little enjoyment as bodes well for the “Get Carter” retrospective at the Barbican in January. Jiří Bělohlávek cannot have had much opportunity to conduct Carter, but his confident direction suggested he is looking forward to getting to grips with repertoire such as his tenure with the BBC Symphony will soon make possible.

Bělohlávek’s previous encounters with the orchestra have suggested him as someone who places a premium on poise and lucidity. So it came as some surprise to find him conducting an ‘Emperor’ Concerto of such rough-hewn energy. A little too much, perhaps, for Emanuel Ax – whose subtlety and concern over detail in the opening movement did tend to get lost amid the vitality, impeded only by some tentative tempo fluctuations in a rather under-powered central development. The Adagio was simply and touchingly rendered, while the finale had a drive and buoyancy that largely compensated for any lack of suavity. Ax remains a searching interpreter of the Classical repertoire, and his playing of Debussy’s ‘Pagodes’ (Estampes) as an encore confirmed he has not lost his ability to invest phrases with a deceptive understatement.

After the interval, Strauss’s tone-poem Tod und Verklärung was given a performance high in impact – and decibels! – which drove home its underlying concept of transcendence in no uncertain terms. Yet after a limpidly affecting prelude, the ‘death’ music was merely brutal rather than emotion-wracked, and the ‘transfiguration’ sequence made for an imposing but insufficiently cathartic apotheosis. This, coupled with too literal a disguising of the work’s formal joins, made it a rather unconvincing account.

The evening closed with a “Symphony of Psalms” that, while it did not solve all of the work’s problems of balance, was more than attentive to its uniquely hieratic fervour. Bělohlávek drove the ‘Exaudi’ movement to a starkly exultant climax, then proceeded thoughtfully through ‘Expectans, expectavi’ – with its Bachian contrapuntal elements and sonorities mesmerically remade for a later era. The BBC Symphony Chorus gave its all throughout, and seemed unfazed by a slightly awkward handling of the allegro sections in ‘Laudate Dominum’ – whose second half nonetheless had the rapt inwardness this otherworldly music requires.

Bělohlávek may need a few more concerts to get the Barbican acoustic firmly in his mind’s ear, but the rapport he often achieved does suggest that the BBC Symphony Orchestra will next year be getting its 76th season underway on a secure footing.

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