Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20
Shadows on the Wall – Five Hauntings [London premiere]
Symphony No.1 in G-minor, Op.13 (Winter Daydreams)
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Sophia Lambton
Reviewed: 7 November, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Conservative approaches to conducting that are not determined to inspire, which either shock or have us in awe, are not always more virtuous than reckless ones. When we listen to expected note durations, dynamics and a rhythm that prefers to stroke rubato a work comes out as stale. But in the more sophisticated cases where the tone hits the ears with smoothness and the simultaneous attacks feel crisp rather than cluttered, there’s a comfort in the knowledge that not each conductor is desirous to contort a work out of its recognisable proportions.
In this instance Ben Gernon, who six years ago graduated from the Guildhall School, is markedly at the onset of creating his maestro persona – legato, crescendos and vibrato are accorded monumental importance – precisely the way that they should be.
Beginning with Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, Gernon laid-out his determination to reflect the aura of inevitable death in which the work is drenched. At the beginning of the ‘Lacrymosa’ certain string motifs were stretched-out to be longer and eerie; thus appearing to carry a heavier portent. At the same time the violinists performed their phrases with unchanging, adroit flatness; no curves in rhythm, expansions or decreases in vibrato could be heard. They were instead transfixed; unmoving in a dearth of hope. If ever the psychological process of losing consciousness in response to acute suffering has been manifested in music, this was the moment where the light was extinguished. The choice was one of few creative novelties that Gernon wanted to impart – preferring the remainder of the time to dwell in regulated, safely maintained territory. It would have been the perfect unadventurous interpretation had it not been for many a distinct slippery moment.
Alasdair Nicolson describes Shadows on the Wall (2017) as “five pieces as character studies”, which brought about an uncanny musical paradox. Shadows is a relatively economical work, employing one or two sections of the orchestra at any given moment, sounding skeletal or skimpy. The mezzo sings in all five movements, muted strings or secluded woodwind motifs mingling with her ardent cries, trills on notes so long that they seem plucked from Handel’s Hercules, and thus melodramatic opera meets with an atonal, muffled post-war desolation, a Baroque vocal line frequently at odds with thin orchestral textures. Marta Fontanals-Simmons (replacing Anna Stéphany) performed with a rich middle register and determination to do justice to poems by Christina Rossetti and Chaucer. Sadly she yielded to some vocal clichés – stretching out vowels for emphasis and sliding onto notes.
In Tchaikovsky’s ‘Winter Daydreams’ Symphony Gernon’s approach was stalwartly predictable in terms of rhythms and dynamics; there was never a time when a wandering motif effused ominous laments; yet every now and then trinkets of creativity made their way into the palette, although certain diminuendos on the cellos did not come little by little like a weary traveller but swooped from loud to nothing with brusque suddenness. Most saliently were tremolos which, forte or piano, sizzled out with unparalleled exactitude.Most of the folkloristic motifs that characterise this Symphony were performed softly and with diffidence, remaining by the wayside. Nevertheless there were true virtues to be found in such safety.