BBC Symphony Orchestra/Joshua Weilerstein – Joseph Hallman Gesualdo Suite, Brett Dean Hamlet Diffraction, Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances

Joseph Hallman
ricordi decomposti: A Gesualdo Suite [UK premiere]
Brett Dean
From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphonic Dances, Op.45

Allison Bell (soprano) & Allan Clayton (tenor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Joshua Weilerstein

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 1 November, 2016
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Joshua WeilersteinPhotograph: Felix BroedeRichard Wagner enshrined a couple of studies for Tristan und Isolde within his Wesendonck-Lieder; Alban Berg brought selections from Wozzeck and from Lulu to the concert-going public before their productions; and now Brett Dean has his Hamlet Diffraction, a trailer for his Glyndebourne-commissioned opera which has its first curtain-up next year during the Festival.

On the strength of this “orchestral poem with soprano and tenor voices”, the opera is keenly anticipated, for From Melodious Lay (2016) proved compelling for close on twenty-five minutes. The text is compiled by Matthew Jocelyn (the librettist for the stage-work) and every word used is Shakespeare’s if not in his ordering. A powerful atmosphere is created from the outset, and of the seven continuous sections the fourth is a combustible orchestral ‘Interlude’. Following sections include ‘There is a willow’ – rarefied and including a gurgling contrabass clarinet – and the rapturous ‘Farewell my dove’.

Dean (the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current Artist in Association) describes his Hamlet Diffraction as a “… poetic and musical exploration of colliding worlds, those of Hamlet and Ophelia, those of Shakespeare and our own…”, and it was often spellbinding and thrilling, with two excellent singers. Allan Clayton will be Hamlet at Glyndebourne, and although Allison Bell will yield there to Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia, she too was very much the real thing, relocating to one side and further back to conclude her contribution with “Good night ladies”. Joshua Weilerstein presided over an impressive premiere and Brett Dean was in attendance. Roll on summer on the South Coast!

Allison BellPhotograph: Felipe PaganiThe concert had started with a chamber-sized BBCSO – strings (reduced), woodwinds, a little brass, and some percussion (bells, vibraphone, glockenspiel) – for Joseph Hallman’s Gesualdo Suite (also composed this year). Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613), the murderer of his adulterous wife and her lover, his princely status making him beyond the law, was an adventurous composer, his music also attracting Stravinsky for his Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa. Hallman (born in Philadelphia in 1979) has looked at Gesualdo’s Sixth Book of Madrigals, music that is beautiful, strange and harmonically daring. His transcriptions are sympathetic, the titular ricordi decomposti (decomposed memories) alternating with ‘intermezzi sospirosi’ (whisper interludes). All very imaginative and affecting, including opportunities for the players to quietly vocalise, this sensitive and eloquent account of music courtly, perky and, most of all, spacious and unpredictable, made for hypnotic if (in a good sense) unsettling listening. The last two movements were not included, presumably because they are taken from a different Gesualdo collection, an omission authorised by the composer.

After the interval, Weilerstein began Rachmaninov’s swansong Symphonic Dances (1940) with a perfect tempo for Non allegro, the playing weighty and incisive. Martin Robertson’s saxophone solo in the slow bittersweet middle section smouldered and, on taking the melody up, the violins were silky. Yet, greater Slavic glower would have been welcome (the horns were suppressed) although the close was especially expressive and rapt (a shame then about the mood-breaking clapping, a real jolt). The second movement waltz was the overall highlight, if less macabre than it can be. Gregory Ahss supplied a delicious violin solo, the strings were sensuous, and the quicker conclusion brought welcome deliberation and lightness, quite balletic. The Finale was initially too easygoing – this is music both death-haunted and abyss-staring. At least Weilerstein gradually tightened the screw, if not enough (although the ‘Dies irae’ thundered out on bells-up horns was a moment to treasure) for the concluding bars – despite another well-judged speed (not rushed) for the Russian Orthodox music – didn’t quite express fully the fire of Rachmaninov’s music. Weilerstein opted for a long-held gong diminuendo – some conductors do, some don’t, the latter including the work’s first conductor, Eugene Ormandy, his 1960 recording remaining definitive – but he sustained its demise immaculately, as did the audience.

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