BBC Symphony Orchestra

Symphony No.96 in D (Miracle)
Symphony No.4

Camilla Tilling (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 12 October, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Jiří Bělohlávek. ©Clive BardaIn playing Haydn and Mahler the BBC Symphony Orchestra is challenging the other London orchestras’ (well-worn) repertoire and therefore there was little to demarcate this concert from the rest, except that the orchestral response wasn’t always characterful enough to distinguish the familiarity of the Mahler or the mercurial invention of the Haydn.

Of course, both pieces were thoroughly rehearsed by a conductor with a sure grasp of the music’s mechanics and direction, but there was also an element of duty at the expense of inspiration. There was no doubting the affectionate and shapely way with the Haydn symphony (they are all ‘miracles’, but this one was being played when a chandelier fell and no-one was hurt) – sombre in the Adagio introduction and lively in the Allegro, pauses made much off, antiphonal violins (as throughout the concert) making an aural mark. But there was too much ‘direction’ from the podium and spontaneity was stifled, not least in the Trio despite David Powell’s expressive oboe-contribution in which rhythms were imposed rather than swaying naturally. The finale, a ‘mere’ Vivace assai, was taken very fast – hustle and bustle, however neatly played, is just that, the music unable to breath. Mechanical! Three double basses may now be politic in this music, but there was little foundation.

The first movement of the Mahler (with seven basses, eight were listed) was elegant, tempos integrated across the whole – nothing volatile or nightmarish here (and those elements are there in what is typecast as a ‘genial’ work). While Jiří Bělohlávek’s approach is perfectly valid, and symphonically unimpeachable, hints of grotesquerie tended to be forced rather than emerging spectre-like. The BBCSO’s leader Stephen Bryant had numerous solos in all three works, including the tone-higher contribution (on a second violin) for Mahler’s macabre second movement (except if wasn’t really here), and he acquitted himself admirably.

Camilla Tilling. Photograph: San Francisco SymphonyThe highlight of the Mahler was the slow movement, beautifully played to begin with, serene and smooth, such placidity convincingly upset by tempo and emotional fluctuations that brought some of the most involved and involving music-making of the evening; the opening of the Gates of heaven, while pushed through somewhat, had genuine grandeur and gravitas and a soulful benediction as its counterpart. A shame, then, that Bělohlávek allowed a pause before proceeding with the finale; atmosphere and tension dissipated. Camilla Tilling, in this child’s view of Heaven, was rather too fulsome in tone and tended to break into phrases. The symphony’s fading, however, was exquisitely graduated, the harp’s punctuation meaningfully sounded, and the resulting silence gratifying.

The novelty of the evening was Zemlinsky’s miniature (8-minute) setting of Eichendorff completed in 1896 (when the composer was in his mid-twenties). Economically scored for two horns, harp and strings, the writing is intense and narrative-like and the vocal demands (owing something to “Tristan”) are considerable – and found Tilling well-suited in her operatic declamation, with excellent support from the orchestra (Bělohlávek not unaware of Dvořákian references) – and left a memorable impression.

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