BBC Symphony Orchestra – Alexander Vedernikov conducts Vasks & Shostakovich – Helen Vollam premieres Gavin Higgins’s Book of Miracles

Pēteris Vasks
Cantabile for Strings
Gavin Higgins
The Book of Miracles [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.4 in C-minor, Op.43

Helen Vollam (trombone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Vedernikov

Reviewed by: Richard Landau

Reviewed: 13 February, 2019
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Alexander VedernikovPhotograph: Marco BorggrevePēteris Vasks’s love for, and identification with, his native Latvia – a land endowed with great natural beauty but also torn apart by political upheavals and war – are imbued in the rich textures of his Cantabile for Strings (1979). The music feels deeply nostalgic as well as palpably sad. Even when the moment of exultation arrives – here delivered with much intensity by the BBC Symphony Orchestra – the final faltering descent into silence leaves the listener with a sense of ambiguity. Alexander Vedernikov was in-tune with the sentiments.

A deeply equivocal mood also closes Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. On the hour-plus journey towards that conclusion, Vedernikov obtained impressive results from his massive band of players, with standout contributions from brass and woodwinds (notably Steven Magee on contrabassoon). Whether the treatment of the manifold changes of mood and tempo made for a compelling whole is debateable, but the soulfulness, terror, and irony of the piece made a powerful impact.

The central item was by Gavin Higgins (born 1983). Inspired by The Book of Miracles – a sixteenth-century German manuscript that depicts biblical stories from the Old Testament and the book of Revelation, as well as miracles and natural and supernatural phenomena – this substantial thirty-minute Concerto proved to be a perfect vehicle for Helen Vollam (BBCSO principal), her trombone ideally suiting the declamatory role.

The work opens calmly before progressing through a series of arresting passages between stentorian soloist and the strings, brass and percussion. A brass chorale is an important element and there is a notable passage where time seems to come to a standstill. In the second movement, exchanges between the trombone (now muted) and orchestra, though briefly interrupted, lead to a fragile, almost spectral, conclusion. Virtuosity is to the fore in the penultimate movement – cadenza-like in both orchestral and trombone terms – and the Finale, which has aggressive and portentous elements alternating with recollections of earlier content, presses on towards a commanding conclusion. This first outing was extremely impressive.

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