BBC Symphony Orchestra/Robertson Gil Shaham – Substratum Premiere

Substratum [BBC commission: world premiere of complete work]
Violin Concerto in D, K211
Un sourire
Violin Concerto in D

Gil Shaham (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 December, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sam HaydenThis veritable miscellany provided a welcome outlet for Sam Hayden’s Substratum (2006) to receive its first complete performance, following a partial airing at last year’s Proms. That featured the final sections, which now appear an intensification of those that precede them, but the 23-minute whole has an audible consistency that no doubt stems from Hayden’s concern to build textures so that the aggregated layers have a cumulative momentum; aided by intricate but tangible polyrhythms which ensure the music’s forward direction, though the sense of climax is more one of an accumulated tension turning in on itself in an implosion as intriguing as it is deftly brought about.

Such a piece depends for its effectiveness on a strong guiding hand, and there are few conductors better equipped to deal with its requirements than David Robertson. Directing the work with unforced mastery enabled the BBC Symphony Orchestra fully to get to grips with the minutiae of detail in music such as these musicians perform all too rarely these days. Substratum is indeed that rare event in British new music: a complex and demanding statement that exists for no reason other than to fulfil its sonic potential. Hayden rose to the challenge with no mean conviction, and his piece deserves further hearings.

Gil ShahamIt was certainly a shock (neither a pleasant nor unpleasant one) to follow this with Mozart at his most ingratiating. His K211 Violin Concerto is typical of his teenage music in that its proficiency of technique far outstrips its intrinsic substance, but such hardly matters with a soloist the calibre of Gil Shaham – who would no doubt have looked as happy directing proceedings, though his rapport with Robertson was unstinting. He brought non-cloying warmth to the Andante and an elegant wit to the closing Rondeau, with its anticipation of the finale from the C major Piano Concerto (K467) a decade hence.

Shaham was marginally less convincing in the Violin Concerto (1931) that exemplifies the neo-classical tendencies of Stravinsky’s middle years – albeit with his periodic Baroque allegiance to the fore. Each movement is prefaced and, to a greater extent, informed by the chord that violinist Samuel Dushkin initially thought unplayable; the concerto otherwise pursuing an intent trajectory from the athletic energy of the ‘Toccata’, through the wistful restraint of ‘Aria I’ and plangent expression of ‘Aria II’, to the scintillating brilliance of ‘Capriccio’. Shaham had the measure of these inner movements, the evenness of his bowing no less impressive than his purity of intonation, and if the first movement was a shade cautious while the finale got into its stride only with those ‘false endings’ that so often catch the soloist unawares, the performance as a whole was rarely less than engaging – Robertson justifiably making the most of the bracing and astringent instrumentation.

In between these complementary concertos came Messiaen’s tribute to Mozart in the bicentennial of his death. Un Sourire (1991) was an appropriate inclusion two days before the former’s centenary: the serene string passages were judiciously phrased, the alternating episodes for wind and percussion precisely articulated, and the piece reached its radiant culmination with just the right effortlessness.

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