BBC Symphony Orchestra/Saraste – Bartók, Sibelius 6 & 7 and a Kurtág premiere

Dance Suite
… concertante …, Op.42 [UK premiere]
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Symphony No.7 in C, Op.105

Hiromi Kikuchi (violin) & Ken Hakii (viola)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 December, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jukka-Pekka SarasteThe BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current season will bring no more significant premiere than that of György Kurtág’s … concertante … – quite why it took eight years (since its completion) to have appeared in the UK is anyone’s guess, but the performance was undeniably worth waiting for.

In many respects the piece conforms to what might be expected of a famously reticent composer at this stage of his maturity. The orchestra is probably the largest he has yet used, though tutti passages were all but absent from a score that focuses on the smallest gesture and expressive nuance. It is the way in which these aspects are deployed – creating larger musical shapes and paragraphs – that the work differs from Kurtág’s earlier orchestral pieces – while the central section features surely the longest span of quick music he has yet conceived. Nor is this a wantonly virtuosic piece, pursuing a strangely amorphous relationship between soloists and orchestra aptly described by the wording and syntax of the title. Following an arresting opening, in which allusions to Mozart and Wagner might be perceptible, the faster section finds agile yet emotionally distanced interplay that builds to a visceral climax from where the expressive range gradually narrows to a point where the soloists – now playing solid-body acoustic instruments – have retreated to near-inaudibility. Hiromi Kikuchi (who gave a memorable account of Kurtág’s Hipartita at Wigmore Hall five years ago) and Ken Hakii were fearlessly committed exponents, while Jukka-Pekka Saraste secured playing of visceral immediacy from the BBCSO.

Principal Guest Conductor of this orchestra during 2002-05, Saraste is always a welcome visitor to London, not least because his programmes invariably contain something of interest. He opened this one with an account of Bartók’s Dance Suite (1923) which underlined its startling fusion of folk-derived ideas and an orchestral virtuosity that has had profound consequences for European music. There was no lack of panache in the playing, though it was the more-inward passages that resonated most strongly – notably the chaste sensuality of the Arabic fourth dance and an evocative ritornellos whose final appearance presages the uninhibited finale.

The BBCSO is this season performing all seven Sibelius symphonies. Presenting the final two this way has the advantage of pointing up similarities and even greater contrasts, though Saraste avoided making the four movements of the Sixth Symphony (1923) a continuous entity in the manner that Sakari Oramo achieved so deftly in his memorable account at this year’s Proms. Not that there was much to fault in this performance: thus the first movement’s ‘slow’ introduction flowed seamlessly into its purposeful continuation, while the relative deliberation of the ensuing intermezzo was made an admirable foil to the agile scherzo. The finale was for the most part adeptly handled, with only a lack of gravitas in the lengthy coda to suggest that, although Saraste undoubtedly has the measure of this hauntingly elusive piece, his interpretation is ultimately not greater than the sum of its often judiciously rendered parts.

Much the same could be said of the reading of the Seventh Symphony (1924). The way in which Sibelius gets a wholly different sound from almost identical forces is one facet of his orchestral genius. Again, there was precious little to fault in what was a fleet and incisive performance, save that in this single-movement work of seamless formal transition and attendant cumulative expressive impact, there needed to be greater intensity in the way those transitions facilitated that long-term impact – not least the majestic theme that thrice appears on trombones to direct the music towards its seismic culmination and transcendent conclusion. Saraste’s account impressed more through in its adroit handling of detail than projection of the ‘larger picture’: absorbing as it most often was.

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