BBC Symphony Orchestra – Jiří Bělohlávek, Barry Douglas, Martinů Symphony Cycle

Symphony in Three Movements
Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16
Symphony No.3

Barry Douglas (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 17 April, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Barry DoulgasThe piano has a concertante role in the Stravinsky, makes a prominent contribution to the Martinů and, of course, takes the limelight in the Prokofiev. Barry Douglas gave a brittle, black-and-white account of Prokofiev’s monstrous and outrageous solo part, angular, clarified, brilliantly focussed, building the outsize, hormone-fed first-movement cadenza with skill and control, as well as making it belong. There was clearly a close partnership with Jiří Bělohlávek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which came into its own in the second movement, a scherzo normally careered through; this Irish-Czech collaboration moderated the tempo to find playfulness and point; even so, there was a slight drifting apart come the final bars. Similarly the third movement can be bombastic, but here machine-like confrontation melted into a waltz-fantasy. The finale pulsated, and radiated the mellifluousness of folksong; Douglas searched the (much shorter) cadenza with thoughtfulness and found Bartókian resonance before a coruscating and (this time) unanimous coda.

Of the two contemporaneous World War Two symphonies, the Stravinsky, although meticulous in rhythm and punctuation, lacked the last degree of force and found horns and trumpets not always the equal of Stravinsky’s exposed demands. This is music that hits hard but was rather soft-grained and polite at times: the finale did not goose-step enough and the final chord lacked optimum punch; while the opening movement, despite a well-judged, driving tempo was more concerned with text than spirit. The strict pulse and mystical enchantment of the middle movement came off well, though, so too the ‘trio-sonata’ for piano, harp and trombone in the finale.

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaIf the performance of the Stravinsky – a masterpiece – was ultimately somewhat too studied, the Martinů – in a reading that revealed maybe an unsuspected masterpiece – compelled and enriched.

Martinů’s Third Symphony has all his trademarks – rhythmic cells, burgeoning lyricism, mosaic-like scoring, humanity – but the music is dark and deeply personal, powerfully universal, too, optimism occasionally hinted at, pent-up frustration let off the leash, sometimes relieved, more often retaining edge and dilemma. At the symphony’s heart is an intense threnody of a slow movement, one with enough rhythmic liveliness to suggest a scherzo, yet a flute solo brings solace (here gracefully shaped and sounded by Daniel Pailthorpe), the movement winding down to calm, if not entirely closing the door on multi-layered concerns, which the finale continues to portray despite the violas leading music of rapture and solo strings exquisitely emerging from the texture. Regal summonses from the brass suggest hopefulness and radiance emerges, yet curt staccatos issued from Elizabeth Burley’s piano suggested otherwise and had the ‘last word’. This was a wonderfully prepared and acutely convincing performance of a truly great work.

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