BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bělohlávek Sarah Connolly – Tristan und Isolde … Neruda Songs … Dvořák 7

Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Neruda Songs [UK premiere]
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 October, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Just a few months ago the LSO and Daniel Harding offered a concert in this very venue that began with the same Wagner and ended with the identical Dvořák symphony. Then those works framed HK Gruber’s Aerial (a trumpet concerto from 1999); now, to open the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new season, they enclosed Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” from 2005.

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaUnder Jiří Bělohlávek’s consideration, the Wagner bookends were given with soulful intensity yet also an attractive reticence, dynamics carefully graded, the music-making imbued with tragedy but also purity, the ‘Liebestod’ dignified while retaining a glorious trajectory to transcendence.

It was surprising that Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” was only now making its UK debut despite being completed so recently; this is music that travels far and easily; and, indeed, has done so on a Nonesuch recording with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony. As in the Wagner, love is the dominant emotion. In composer Lieberson’s case it is the inspiration of true love between him and singer Lorraine Hunt (they married in 1999) and then the unbearable loss of her to cancer just a year after this cycle was completed (she died on 3 July 2006 at the age of 52). Indeed some of her final appearances were in the first and earliest performances of “Neruda Songs”.

Sarah ConnollyAlthough “Neruda Songs” – setting “love poems” by the Chilean Pablo Neruda (1904-73) – was of course written by Peter Lieberson (born 1946) when his wife was alive, one must assume that, very privately, her illness would have been known to them both, for there is in the music a mix of adoration and poignancy, the music itself romantic and allusive – a sort of mix between Joseph Canteloube’s “Songs of the Auvergne” and Berg – often with considerable emotional depth that comes from something as personally inspired as this, yet with a directness that reaches out to us all, and here aided by Sarah Connolly’s ardent, heartfelt yet innocent singing spiced by her relish of the Spanish language, sensitively accompanied. What didn’t help the performance was the tactless applause, from just a few, after the first three songs, something that Bělohlávek managed to avoid after the fourth one (with its Latin-American percussion) thanks to a little ‘crowd control’. The final setting (‘My love, if I die and you don’t’) is a concise abschied and as spare as Mahler’s, gently distilling to a peaceful conclusion. If there is a lack of variety over the 30 minutes, and the work as a whole does seem a little too long, there is no-doubting the beauty and heart-tugging music that Lieberson composed and that this UK premiere was a notable one.

No between-movement clapping marred Dvořák’s great Seventh Symphony, not ‘love music’ as such but a score full of passion and Slavic temperament. Bělohlávek appreciates Dvořák’s rhythms and detailing as the native he is. This was a free-flowing and arching account, expressively flexible, lilting, coursing, drawing a fine balance between sophistication and rusticity, a stream of consciousness that sometimes pressed ahead a little too much, and thus lost the expansiveness that can be yielded from this music. Yet such was the conductor’s appreciation of his countryman’s outpouring (one-hundred per cent Bohemian with no room for Brahms) that such directness resounded with a truth that headed inexorably to a noble conclusion. If some sounds glared – the consequence of too-loud brass in such an immediate acoustic, and the violins really needed to be antiphonal to allow the cellos to sing out from centre-stage – the performance had a vitality and identification that carried considerable thrall.

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