BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bringuier – Dvořák & Tchaikovsky – Carolin Widmann plays Rebecca Saunders

Carnival Overture, Op.92
Rebecca Saunders
Still [BBC co-commission with Beethovenfest Bonn: UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Carolin Widmann (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Lionel Bringuier

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 10 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Nobody doubts the importance of contemporary music in concert programming. Nor would most people think it a good idea that new works be placed in the equivalent of a musical ghetto. However, whether juxtaposing two such established pieces by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky with a difficult new piece such as Rebecca Saunders’s violin concerto, Still, does the newer work any favours is open to question.

Dvořák’s Carnival Overture invariably gets any concert off to a feel-good flying start and this was no exception. Seldom, incidentally, has one heard a tambourine played with greater relish or abandon than by Fiona Ritchie! Under Lionel Bringuier’s crisply polished direction panache was never in short supply but this performance also had real ache and nostalgia in the slower sections with the wind soloists distinguishing themselves.

Rebecca Saunders (born 1967) completed her PhD in Edinburgh and after studies with Wolfgang Rihm now lives in Berlin. Her principal musical concern is with the intricacies of timbre, not a typically British pre-occupation, and to quote the programme “it is no surprise that her music has met with most success outside the UK.” Still is a 20-minute violin concerto whose title has its roots in the German word stille and refers to the way silence is used to frame sound. For Saunders silence is the starting point “with an endless potential, waiting to be revealed and made audible” and the concerto’s point of departure is Samuel Beckett’s eponymous short story focusing on a single event, that of “turning the head towards the setting sun as an unknown figure watches night fall, before placing the head slowly in hands, waiting for a sound.”

Given this, one might have been led to expect a slow and contemplative piece. Not a bit of it. The opening movement is dynamically forward-moving, the orchestra used almost like a steel-band to propel the music ever onwards, the violin iterative in expanding the grating gesture with which the work opens. Imagine the musical equivalent of a collage, the orchestra providing the background, the violin hurling daubs of paint at the canvas. By contrast, the concerto’s second half opens with a rumbling of the double basses (and bass drum) and some shuddering on the strings like a giant breathing – music of infinite menace, as though one were between sleeping and waking contemplating a post-apocalyptic landscape. Occasional shards of melody from the violin punctuate the pervasive bleakness. Carolin Widmann (with whom the composer worked closely in the concerto’s development) coped magnificently with its manifold difficulties. Bringuier and the orchestra provided a confident backdrop. Whether the sound and fury signified anything is a moot point.

Considering that Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is such a staple, it is a matter of constant surprise how many conductors disappoint in this work. Sadly, and surprisingly (given his past BBCSO concerts) Bringuier joined the list. The work opened promisingly enough with clarinettist Richard Hosford’s finding plenty of light and shade with some notably well-judged balances in the lower strings. Thereafter things went rapidly awry, restraint quickly jettisoned in favour of generalised emotion and ever-swifter tempos (that for the Finale almost worthy of Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic). The symphony is a great piece for the strings and if – at any point – they are obliterated by the brass, as happened all-too regularly here, the brass is playing too loudly.

At least one hoped for some compensatory finesse elsewhere. However, Nicholas Korth’s horn solo in the slow movement was workaday, whilst, all too often, woodwind detail intended as ancillary assumed an importance quite out of proportion to its real significance. At least Julie Price’s sensitive bassoon solos did her credit though Bringuier’s fractionally too fast base speed for the first movement left even her less than comfortable when that instrument ushers in the recapitulation.

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