BBC Symphony Orchestra New Season

Ad absurdum [UK premiere]
Symphony No.7 in E [edited by Leopold Nowak]

Sergei Nakariakov (trumpet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 October, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s new season opened with a coupling that could hardly have been more contrasted.

Established among the leading younger German composers, Jörg Widmann has been relatively little heard in the UK, though a performance of Lied by the Bamberg Symphony and Jonathan Nott at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival confirmed his undoubted orchestral and formal mastery. Whereas that piece unfolded against the background of a Mahlerian symphonic adagio, Ad absurdum is all about pushing a relentless energy to its very limits – if not beyond.

Described as a ‘Konzertstück’, Ad absurdum (2002) is a one-movement trumpet concerto whose initial stream of solo semiquavers evince an impetus that informs the work through almost all its 15 minutes – drawing the orchestra (strings plus a group of wind, with the emphasis on lower timbres, timpani and percussion) into a scintillating interplay which feels constantly on the brink of collapse, but kept ‘on the rails’ by a rhythmic motion that refuses to let up. The journey is inventively scored, not least when a hurdy-gurdy (placed on the left of the platform) makes its distinctive presence felt in the approach to what is less the climax than the point of saturation – the pent-up energy dissipatingto leave the soloist exhaling on some impossibly low chords, before the music simply gives out.

Ad absurdum was played by dedicatee Sergei Nakariakov (who gave the premiere only in January last year) with suitably hair-raising virtuosity; especially evident in the way that soloist and orchestra often seem to be playing at cross-purposes so as to make the rhythmic continuum more oblique. And manic though it may be in spirit, Ad absurdum is too resourcefully constructed ever to be ‘absurd’.

All far removed from the lofty grandeur of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. That said, Jiří Bělohlávek placed little emphasis on metaphysical profundity – preferring a Classical dynamism that saw the work home in just over an hour. There are notable precedents for this (Hans Rosbaud and, more recently, Michael Gielen come to mind), and Bělohlávek’s interpretationwas nothing if not integrated and thought through on its own terms. Yet the main thematic elements of the opening movement never quite evinced the poise that characterizes this Bruckner symphony more than any other; their follow-through sounding harried in the development and reprise, leaving the coda with little chance of bringing the larger design into focus with the conclusiveness required.

The Adagio was similarly less than the sum of its often impressive parts, Bělohlávek pointing up the expressive contrast of its two themes and with the transitions between them deftly handled. What was lacking was that sense of cumulative growth vital if the second return of the main theme is to crown the movement with true eloquence. Here, the (added later, Nowak-accepted) percussion was neatly drawn into the texture and the combining of brass and strings finely balanced, but the overall impact was lacking. The burnished richness of Wagner tubas was the highlight of a coda whose deeper recesses yet proved elusive.

Bělohlávek adopted a bracing tempo for the scherzo (antiphonal violins really making their mark), but could have relaxed a little more for the trio – which emerged as too matter-of-fact. The finale was well handled, its thematic elements cohering more securely than in the first movement and the brief, almost transitional development enabling the reprise to ‘up’ the momentum accordingly. As a performance, this was never less than enjoyable and confirms Bělohlávek as no mean Brucknerian, but as the final bars rang out, a feeling that the piece had been sold short was not entirely dispelled.

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