BBC Symphony Orchestra/Simone Young – Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and, with Russell Braun & Albane Carrère, the UK premiere of Peter Eötvös’s Senza sangue

Concerto for Orchestra
Peter Eötvös
Senza sangue – Opera in one Act to a libretto by Mari Mezei after the novel by Alessandro Baricco [UK premiere; concert performance sung in Italian, with English surtitles]

Woman / Nina – Albane Carrère
Man / Pedro – Russell Braun

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Simone Young

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 March, 2017
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

BBC Symphony Orchestra performing at the Barbican Centre on Friday 10 March 2017Photograph: Mark Allan / BBCThis concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra featured the second of this season’s UK premieres for Peter Eötvös (following The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies, link below), Senza sangue (2015) being the most recent stage-work from this most versatile of contemporary opera composers.

This one-Act score unfolds over seven scenes; an orchestral introduction and epilogue providing a means of framing the drama such that it emerges as a cohesive whole while also anticipating its continuation in the guise of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with which it is intended to comprise a double-bill. In both works, there are two vocal soloists: here a woman who approaches a lottery vendor on the ruse of drawing him into conversation, and latterly confrontation, about a shared past which is both violent in incident yet abstracted as to its setting and, ultimately, its purpose. That these characters’ names are finally revealed, moreover, has little more bearing on the drama than the language in which this opera is sung.

All so inscrutable, it might seem, though entirely in accordance with Eötvös’s preference for allowing empathy on the part of his protagonists to accrue through purely musical means. As previously, his idiom is one where modernist precedent has been astutely refashioned for the present; its harmonic astringency and textural clarity not at the expense of that expressive quality without which the drama would amount to little more than role-playing. One might not feel drawn to these characters, and yet their situation does seem to matter in no small degree.

Mezzo-soprano Albane Carrère as Nina and baritone Russell Braun as Pedro in Peter Eötvös’s opera Senza sangue, performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Simone YoungPhotograph: Mark Allan / BBCThe present performance found Russell Braun evoking the right defeatism and world-weariness apropos the never merely vengeful eloquence of Albane Carrère (replacing an indisposed Christine Rice). The initial stages were marred by a misbalance of singers and orchestra duly rectified, and Cori Ellison’s surtitles were informative without being intrusive. Simone Young secured a visceral response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and one looks forward to seeing this opera staged, though just how well it would complement the Bartók remains in doubt.

Certainly, the Eötvös formed an intriguing juxtaposition when heard after Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), long a staple of the repertoire, yet this account was far from routine. Young built the ‘Introduzione’ with due appreciation of its sectional if viable take on sonata form; underlining that alternation between pathos and defiance which informs the work as a whole. The ‘Giuoco delle coppie’ was engaging while a little too headlong (restraint need not preclude insight here), but the ‘Elegia’ lacked little in anguish and the disjunctive facets of the ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ were brought into productive accord. Young’s hectic initial tempo for the ‘Finale’ was not quite maintained in the canonic interplay of its central stages, yet there was no doubting the sense of affirmation at the close.

Overall, this proved to be an absorbing concert which, coming after Young’s impressive appearance at last year’s Proms, underlined the emerging rapport between her and the BBC Symphony Orchestra which will hopefully be continued during future seasons.

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