Prelude for Brass [UK premiere]
Clarinet Concerto [UK premiere]
Era [UK premiere]
Symphony No.8 [UK premiere]
Christoffer Sundqvist (clarinet)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 9 March, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The latest BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion day was rounded-off by this concert of UK premieres conducted by John Storgårds, a dynamic and demonstrative force throughout the evening. Earlier in the day, to be fully reported on by a Classical Source colleague, there was a film of Strindberg’s Hedda Gabler (with Fiona Shaw), a string-quartet recital including new work from Poul Ruders, and a ‘strictly Scandinavian’ choral evensong.
Aside from the first two being played by the BBCSO, a medley of composers graced the audience – including Peter Maxwell Davies, Anthony Payne, Julian Anderson and Matthew Taylor. Prelude for Brass (2008) by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen (born 1961) opened proceedings in celebratory style, quick-fire toccata-like writing vying with solemn chorales. Yet, even over a mere 12 minutes, and despite a superbly played performance, the music seemed stuck in a groove and needing greater variety and development, the final pay-off, a repeated trumpet note, rather irritating.
The Clarinet Concerto (2006) by Finn Sebastian Fagerlund (born 1972) begins evocatively, the sun rising over a lake sort of thing, the soloist called upon for some note-bending (not an expressive device that sustains interest!). Overall though the attention was caught, and continued in the propulsive first movement, a bright sunny day with glints and thumps of percussion. Solace comes in the form of the meditative ‘Rituale’, possibly from deep in a forest, then a long and capricious cadenza (with shades of the Benny Goodman-inspired counterpart in Copland’s Clarinet Concerto deep-rooted by a long-held (several minutes!) note from double basses. The energy-fuelled finale is musically the least distinguished section, a road-movie soundtrack running-on empty. The concerto, while entertaining and engaging, seems to have little to return to though, but there was no-doubting the outstanding performance, not least the super-virtuosity ofChristoffer Sundqvist, every twist and turn played with remarkable assurance and precision.
Music of greater and longer-lasting rewards filled the second half, from Finland then Denmark. Magnus Lindberg’s Era (2012), written for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and hot off the press (David Robertson conducted the January first performances) proved to be sinewy and rich, its starting point being the unmistakeable opening of Sibelius’s deep, dark and extraordinary Fourth Symphony, which Lindberg acknowledges; not credited though are the references – surely? – to music by Berg, Debussy, Ravel and Richard Strauss, giving Era the made-up-by-me subtitle of ‘the whole of twentieth-century western music in less than twenty minutes’. That’s what I heard anyway, such allusion threaded through the score with deftness. If not, and anyway, Era is a compelling piece brilliantly orchestrated (and brilliantly played here), packed with all-belonging incident, concluding, all passion spent, with a Messiaen-like ‘colour chord’. Or not! Certainly a piece to go back to, for there is much more to discover.
Similarly Per Nørgård’s Symphony No.8 (2011). Dedicated to the Helsinki Philharmonic and John Storgårds, the maestro has mastered every note and inflection of this work and he inspired the BBCSO to a crisp, detailed and persuasive UK launch. Indeed the conductor-orchestra rapport was palpable. In three movements, this 25-minute Symphony is certainly complex, yet the effect for the listener is texturally beguiling, a quixotic journey, sometimes-oblique in harmony yet in a way that enthrals. You could never guess what was coming next, the ear willingly teased, but it all seemed inevitable and spun with underlying logic.
The way the first movement (Tempo giusto – Poco allegro, molto distinto) turns into a whimsical scherzo recalls its equivalent in Sibelius 5, if without the seismic upheaval. Nørgård’s refined handling of a large orchestra is remarkably nimble (“classical and light” to quote a comment following the Helsinki world premiere). Textural busyness continues into the nominal slow movement (marked Adagio molto), not without its dance-band suggestion, and also intense and openly expressive. The finale bursts at the seams with invention and colour, at once fastidious and freewheeling, and if the stopping in its tracks and fading to nothing did not immediately convince, then further listening will no doubt solve that doubt. Nørgård, just in to his ninth decade, continues to be ingenious, distinctive and durable. John Storgårds’s conducting was authoritative, and the BBCSO played with total certainty and relish.
All the music played on this day was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and indeed some was immediately broadcast in Hear and Now (with the remainder in future editions), including Nørgård 8; the iPlayer could well come into its own.