A Cage of Doves [London premiere]
Viola Concerto (Humoreskes), Op.41
Byzantium [world premiere]
Flying Banner (after Wang To) [UK premiere]
Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 25 January, 2013
Venue: Studio 1, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Delaware Road, Maida Vale, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s series of studio concerts at its home in Maida Vale provides a welcome opportunity to hear music that, for whatever reason, is unlikely to make it into its Barbican Centre schedule. This programme featured four composers (all present) who, born within 15 years of each other, evinced very different approaches to the issue of orchestral composition in the early 21st-century.
Sally Beamish opened proceedings with A Cage of Doves (2007), which might be described as a tone poem inspired by George Mackay Brown’s novel Magnus (earlier the subject of an opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, to whom this work is dedicated) – specifically the conflict and resolution between two brothers who ruled over the Orkneys during the tenth-century, set against the inimitable island backdrop. The ruminative opening section and that which closes the piece, with its allusion to the ‘Hymn of St Magnus’ suffused with the calling of doves, resonate in the mind more than the slightly forced energetic music which parallels the fateful saga – for all that the cohesion of the overall work was rarely in doubt.
Concertos have long been central to Matthew Taylor’s activities – yet the Viola Concerto (2010) took shape as a series of ‘humoreskes’ inspired by Sibelius’s magical set for violin and orchestra, with Taylor only latterly realising its concerto-like status. Thus a wistful and atmospheric Andante is followed by a tensile Presto the more arresting for its compression – before a Larghetto which, its eloquent solo line unfolding over rapt Tippett-like harmonies, forms the heart of the work. The slow fourth movement is essentially an accompanied cadenza, leading directly into the final Allegro whose ‘riotoso’ marking points up its always impulsive and energetic manner – evidently inspired by the composer’s daughter Imogen; the work is dedicated to ‘Imo’. The work received an assured and also insightful account from Sarah-Jane Bradley, who emerged effortlessly over inventive and economic orchestral writing (with no flutes or clarinets, but a piccolo and two horns alongside timpani and strings) to which Garry Walker – having directed a fine account of Taylor’s Second Symphony at this venue four years ago – did ample justice.
After a short interval came the first performance of Byzantium (2012) by Malcolm Hayes: a further tone poem, this time inspired by W. B. Yeats’s famous poem – excerpts from which were specified by the composer to illustrate the evolution of music that amply captured the aura of Constantinople in its heyday as the Eastern nexus of the Roman Empire as well as that of early Christendom. ‘Evolution’ might not be the right description of music which does not so much develop as alternate between burnished layers of sound, permeated either by shimmering trumpet fanfares or the caressing sound of bells. The work thus eased its way forward, leaving an impression no less affecting for its overtly amorphous expression.
Such a description could by no means be applied to Flying Banner (2005) – Liza Lim’s explosive piece inspired by the “rhythmic freedom” of Chinese calligraphy, though this might not have been the first thing that came to mind with these ‘‘statements of announcement’’ (to quote the composer) which take in some strenuous workouts for the brass – not least trumpets near the top of their compass – before culminating in a ‘whiteout’ of string textures that evoke cicadas and the arrival of summer. The work marginally failed to justify its nine minutes – especially as those brief interludes of relative calm brought a parallel loss of momentum – while yet galvanising a virtuoso response from both orchestra and conductor.
- Recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 during the week beginning 11 February
- BBCSO www.bbc.co.uk/orchestras/so
- BBC Radio 3 www.bbc.co.uk/radio3