BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek – Brahms 4 … Penderecki 8

Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98
Symphony No.8 (Lieder der Vergänglichkeit) [UK premiere of Revised Version]

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Agnieszka Rehlis (mezzo-soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 February, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933)As advertised, Penderecki’s latest symphony was to be played first. That order should have prevailed, for Penderecki’s song-cycle – with traits of oratorio – wasn’t up to following a great (and genuine) symphony such as Brahms 4 (which itself doesn’t really ‘work’ as a ‘first-half’ piece anyway). If ‘Brahms 4 … Penderecki 8’ reads like a football score and suggests a notable away-win for the Polish composer, the fact is that Brahms scored a convincing victory. Not that music is a competition, but Penderecki (born 1933) was certainly ‘playing away’ in this work – just as he has been since he reneged his ‘avant-garde’ credentials and became a ‘neo-Romantic’. In Symphony 8 – “Songs of Transience” or “Songs of Evanescence” – Penderecki has compiled a ‘history of Austro-German Music’.

This performance was of the Revised Version (2007), which adds three further settings. Naxos (on 8.570450, Antoni Wit conducting) has already issued a recording of the Original Version (2005). The symphony, as played in this UK premiere, lasted for about 47 minutes matching the programme-book’s suggested 45; Naxos’s recording takes 36 and the score of the Revision suggests 55. Written for three vocal soloists, chorus and a large orchestra (with a fair amount of percussion), there is much to beguile the ear and semi-stir the emotions. But there isn’t a bar in these settings of German poets (Eichendorff, Rilke, Brecht, Goethe, et al) that hasn’t been ‘heard’ before. Zemlinsky, Schreker, Pfitzner, Fortner, Egk, Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” and “Moses und Aron”, Franz Schmidt’s “Das Buch mit sieben Siegein”, a splash of Liszt in Mephistophelian mode, a nod to Henze, a rapturous phrase that would sit comfortably in Robert Schumann’s songbook, and a glance back to Bach and also to Penderecki himself and his 1960s’ ‘techniques’ rather dulls the experience. Even the use of ocarinas – 50 of them as a natty fashion accessory for members of the chorus – deflected one’s memory to Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

Jiří Bělohlávek“I take what I can use and make something new out of it”, Penderecki is quoted. Such disarming honesty might quell criticism, and anyone not knowing ‘any of the above’ may well be (understandably) smitten by what Penderecki has compiled (I use the word advisedly). In an age of ‘sound-bites’, why bother with so much past-era music when Penderecki has made a 50-minute package out of it. Not that there are any quotations; it’s simply that Penderecki has landed on a style that suits him but which is too close to what we already have. It’s very likeable – I liked it – but the lack of personality reminds all the more clearly of the stronger profiles of earlier composers and leaves Penderecki in a supervisory capacity.

No doubts about the performance though, which was superbly marshalled by Jiří Bělohlávek, and enjoyed three excellent soloists (mezzo Agnieszka Rehlis, required to be soprano and contralto, is on Naxos’s recording) and the dedicated responses of choir and orchestra. Duncan Wilson gave a brilliant interjection on bass trumpet from behind and above the audience, a sort of ‘last trump’, and quite effective.

Brahms also looked to Bach – for the theme that spawns the 30 Variations of the finale to crown a masterpiece of structure and invention, given here an exacting performance that surged forth without overlooking expressiveness, shading or detail. Yet, in the first movement and the scherzo, Bělohlávek’s directness made reflective moments seem indulgent, while the second movement – spot-on the Andante moderato marking – seemed too similar to the opening movement and needed different colours to sustain the work as a whole. Sometimes objective sweep and Romantic inclination didn’t gel, although the conductor’s rigour paid dividends in orchestral balance; for all that this was a big-band, vibrato-rich account, it wasn’t string-heavy or ‘thick’-sounding and woodwind scoring reached the ears easily. Richard Simpson’s oboe and Richard Hosford’s clarinet proving particularly distinguished; in the finale Michael Cox’s voluptuous flute solo would have transferred to Daphnis et Chloé. Objectivity and impassioned outbursts knitted together well for the final fateful bars.

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