Cello Concerto in D
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers
Reviewed: 23 May, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra completed its 2008-09 Barbican Hall season with a quite exceptional account of Mahler’s Symphony No.5, music that has been played an awful lot of times in London recently. However, when a reading such as Jiří Bělohlávek’s comes along, one’s faith is restored in not only the power of the music but in the ability of an orchestra to reinforce its greatness. From first note to last, this was a reading that was played in admiration of and respect for Mahler’s music.
Bělohlávek displayed profound appreciation of the symphony’s overall architecture, making a coherent journey from the funerary opening to ultimate triumph. He was aided by some remarkably fine playing. To highlight Gareth Bimson’s trumpet solos and Martin Owen’s contributions on horn does a disservice to the rest of the brass. Timpanist John Chimes was notable, too. Throughout, balances were excellent. Bělohlávek employed antiphonal violins (not that he always does); the strings, even when very quiet, were supported or enhanced by brass and, even at the very loudest moments, clarity was maintained.
The measured opening trumpet fanfare was the perfect launch-pad for what became a ‘funeral march’ with defiant tread; the expansive sections flowed with purpose, the trumpet returning to puncture the passionate whirlwind climax and the defiant pizzicato that closes the movement was a perfectly executed sforzando (if maybe, it seems, what Mahler intended!). The opening of the second movement was suitably vehement, a caustic edge to the playing. The moments of calm flowed seamlessly from and into turbulence.
A long pause (an instruction in the score) before the start of the scherzo was provided. Mahler’s markings warn the conductor against hurrying, here allowing graceful contributions from the orchestra. At times Bělohlávek was very strict so that moments of relaxation provided wonderful contrasts. The horns danced amongst themselves producing some superb ‘stereo’ effects and mania took hold towards the end.
The fourth-movement Adagietto was famous long before Visconti’s film of “Death in Venice” (1971). Henry Wood conducted its British premiere in 1909 at the Proms, thirty-six years before the symphony itself was first heard in England. The quality of the BBCSO’s strings shone to give a moving account, with some wonderfully rich sonorities.
It was a surprise that Bělohlávek ignored the attacca into the finale. Restraint, which allowed a controlled building-up of tension, gave the final movement an inexorable drive that fully teased-out Mahler’s twisting narrative, the BBCSO so involved; the blazing peroration, a triumph of contrapuntal expression, was here a wonder. Bělohlávek and his careful preparation made this performance a triumph.
Earlier, Jean-Guihen Queyras had played Haydn’s D major Cello Concerto, a nuanced account, the soloist’s cadenzas pertinent and not too extravagant. What impressed most was Haydn’s so-inventive music! The finale explores possibilities of contrasts in pitch and dynamics, Queyras bringing out Haydn’s experimentation.
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 3 July at 7 p.m.