Schubert-Phantasie (Re-Visionen) für geteiltes grosses Orchester [UK premiere]
Flesh and Blood [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano) & Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 15 February, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The 20-minute Schubert Fantasia (1979/89) had little to offer. Shimmering string chords and glissandos palled long before they finished, a slow dawn to a familiar melody by Schubert (from his G major Piano Sonata, D894). Having this lovely idea manipulated brought mostly tedium and irritation; well performed though with the 82-year-old Dieter Schnebel present. (A more positive opinion of this work comes from Nick Breckenfield in his review of Jonathan Nott’s recording; link below.)
After the interval was some real and ‘Great’ Schubert, his Ninth Symphony, save that Ilan Volkov went for a trendily slimmed-down version (founded on just four double basses) that rarely looked beyond the notes. Efficiently played save for some muddle in the Andante introduction, the first movement was fleet and inorganic, the second all-too-predictably took the con moto marking literally yet with some unconvincing punctuation and ritardandos. The scherzo was hard-driven enough to verge on being gabbled – its spirit of the dance lost – although the trio did at least bring some charm (observing all the repeats, normally welcome, only emphasised Volkov’s unrelenting approach), and if the finale was a little more articulate, if hardly gemütlich in the Barbirolli and Knappertsbusch manner, it still left the trumpeters needing more time for their coda fanfares. Despite the ‘chamber’ slant, fortissimos had a brazen quality, the music imposed upon rather than illuminated from within, and with truly quiet dynamics being at a premium. This isn’t music that always demands the weight and spiritual depth of Furtwängler or Giulini, or Boult’s wholesome and buoyant traversal, but Volkov’s zealous manner lost the symphony much of its dimension. Not that Volkov would have known, but Haitink conducting this work with the LSO last June came back to haunt him. Curiously, although Schubert requests two oboes, the BBCSO sported three.
Flesh and Blood (2012) was a great success, a 23-minute “dramatic scene” by David Sawer on the subject of love and war, a soldier departing from his mother. If Howard Barker’s text is sometimes impenetrable, Sawer’s music reveals all, vivid and explicit enough to set an opera before us, with even these singers’ respective ages being reasonably close to realistic – Christine Rice in her early forties (a statistic difficult to believe), Marcus Farnsworth in his late twenties. If a costume was needed at all, then he looked very smart and ramrod proud in his army uniform, although her arrival, noisy footsteps competing against the music, was more questionable. Sawer (born 1961) has composed thrilling patterns of sound and interventions, very English in style, owing something to both Britten (flourishes) and Tippett (The Ice Break came to mind), the words themselves gratefully set and marvellously sung, Rice having a busy winter in London – in Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and a memorable Ravel Shéhérazade with the Hallé – and ravishing the senses with some lyrical beauty while the violins glided euphoniously into their highest register. This is a rather filmic score, with much for a pair of harps, plentiful skin and metal percussion, a plethora of pizzicatos and glowering brass – honest and approachable music ranging from tenderly poetic to cacophonous. This first performance was impressive, Volkov securing a powerful and incisive response from the BBCSO. A worthwhile commission then, well-worth catching or re-visiting on the iPlayer.