BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Storgårds – Beethoven 8 and Brett Dean’s The Last Days of Socrates, with John Tomlinson

Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Brett Dean
The Last Days of Socrates – Oratorio in three parts to a libretto by Graeme William Ellis, based on Plato [UK premiere; sung in English]

John Tomlinson (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 13 February, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

John StorgårdsBy coincidence, the Berlin Philharmonic and Simon Rattle, now near the end of their London visit, gave the world premiere of Brett Dean’s oratorio The Last Days of Socrates in 2013, also with John Tomlinson, handing over the UK premiere to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, champions of Dean’s music.

It came with a substantial up-beat in the form of Beethoven’s Eighth, the link between the two works being both composers’ aversion to tyranny, and sympathy for the individual at the mercy of many – although such elements don’t feature at all in the Eighth’s sunny disposition. In a notably bracing performance, John Storgårds made some headway in showing off the first movement’s harmonic mischief and an unusually taut middle section. In the other movements foreground and background tended to merge, and some astringent woodwind-playing honed the finale’s brightness without adding much in the way of illumination.

Brett Dean wrote the 50-minute The Last Days of Socrates with John Tomlinson in mind as the elderly philosopher found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and condemned to drink poison, and he was mightily impressive. The role is sympathetic to his range, favouring the several shades of black in his lower register, and he was in firm control of his vibrato and expressive vocal amplitude – and, of course, he brings his vast experience in opera – especially Wagner – and oratorio to bear on the role’s dignified humanity.

Initially thought of as an opera, the work has elements of ritual reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex as well as strong links with the format of the Passion in its deployment of narrative and character. As a viola-player in the Berlin Philharmonic for 16 years, Dean has orchestral knowledge in his bones and he applies it luxuriously to his unique sound with a huge orchestra decked out to the nines with six percussionists, electric guitar, accordion, a mighty contrabass clarinet, off-stage strings and voices and a big cello solo.

Even if you couldn’t work out how Dean arrived at a sound, you certainly registered a score teeming with detail that is not always there merely for effect, and that is what made the quieter music more satisfying – there was a ravishing ensemble for six horns that predicted the tragic outcome of the ‘Trial’ section, the cello solo (Graham Bradshaw) that opens Socrates’s death section was mysteriously shadowed by a tam-tam, onomatopoeic clinks determined the jury’s verdict, and antique bells tinkled as Socrates foresaw his death.

The blasts of choral and orchestral weight sounded much the same, whether they were affirming the sovereignty of Athens or shaping up for the trial. The result was deliberately hectoring, but they made Socrates’s musings on the worthless life unexamined, the importance of living and dying well and the eloquence of his swansong (when the swan dies it sings more sweetly than it sang in a lifetime) all the more resonant.

With a brief but telling solo from tenor Robert Johnston as the hemlock-bearing executioner and stunning singing from the BBC Symphony Chorus, Storgårds steered a sure course through this thoroughly prepared performance. It would, though, have made a big difference if Dean had developed the implied lyricism in Socrates’s role to give greater contrast with the choral writing – and it’s not hard to imagine what an artist of John Tomlinson’s calibre would have made of it.

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