BBC Symphony Orchestra New Season – 27 September

Les illuminations, Op.18
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell), Op.34
Symphony No.1 in D, “Classical”
Symphonies of wind instruments (1947 version)

Ian Bostridge (tenor)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 27 September, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This compact programme launched the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new season and found the orchestra in excellent form under its Conductor Laureate.

As all of Prokofiev’s symphonies are to be a feature of the BBCSO’s season, it seemed appropriate for his first venture into that form to be the opening work on this occasion. It is a remarkable piece, anticipating by a decade or so Stravinsky’s forays into the realm of neo-classicism. A perfectly succinct look at the symphony as a compositional format, Haydn-like in structure and duration, as seen through the eyes of an inquisitive early twentieth-century composer, Prokofiev follows the traditional four-movement structure, albeit substituting a gavotte in place of the traditional minuet or scherzo. Davis’s approach to the first movement was steady – slower than the marked ’Allegro’ – but this allowed for pointed detail to emerge. Every strand of the texture was audible, and the first violins were able to negotiate their exposed lines with poise. There was also plenty of wit and good humour, with piquant comments from the winds. If the first movement was on the broad side, then the second was rather fleeter than Prokofiev’s prescribed ’Larghetto’, but again the strings made the most of their elegant lines. First violins in the stratosphere still managed to sound eloquent and expressive, whilst the cellos and basses provided wry commentary with their staccato phrases. Davis struck just the right tempo for the gavotte and the ’Finale’ fairly raced along with clear articulation from wind and strings ensuring that no detail was obscured.

The string section came into its own in Britten’s Les illuminations, and this performance made one appreciate Britten’s masterly scoring – how hard he makes his violas work! Indeed, one was struck by the sheer originality of the writing, which was surely without precedent in English music – lest it be by Britten himself in the Variations on a theme by Frank Bridge. It was just as well that the string playing was exemplary since, for much of the time, Ian Bostridge was well-nigh inaudible or, at any rate, struggling to make himself heard. His is not a big voice and Britten’s highly imaginative vocal lines did not register effectively. Indeed, Bostridge’s rather monochrome tone and lack of inflection makes him a singer quite unsuited to this repertoire – frequently though he sings it. Of course there were some effective moments – the gentle ’Being Beauteous’ found Bostridge able to negotiate the wide-ranging line with a creamy legato, but more powerful passages needed greater weight than this singer was able to provide. The climactic cry of “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade” was simply not strong enough.

It was the turn of the winds Stravinsky’s pithy Symphonies, which was dispatched rather too hurriedly. I would have preferred a more spacious approach to the chorale-like theme, and time to savour many of the keening woodwind lines. For all its brusqueness and punchy climaxes, this is a ’memorial’ work – to Debussy – and there could have been a more plaintive quality on display from clarinets, oboes and bassoons.

Rapidity of pace was also a problem in The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which began at a brisk allegro, without the qualifying ’maestoso e largamente’ given in the score. This ingenious set of variations on Purcell’s noble theme affords every section – and individual – of an orchestra to shine, and the BBCSO rose to the challenge of the sometimes quite taxing writing. Particular highlights were the oily clarinets, the by turns bluff and pining bassoons, the splendid harp playing of Sioned Williams (her variation reminding of Britten’s fascination with Balinese music) and the noble trombones and tuba. The chinoiserie of the percussion variation could have been delivered with a little more sleight of hand, however, and the final fugue rattled along at a good presto – Britten’s ’Allegro vivace’ would have allowed a little more detail – brilliantly though the orchestra played.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 15 October at 7.30

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