BBCSO – 6th October 2001

Fanfare to La Péri
Jan Sandström
Acintyas [London première]
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2
Oedipus Rex

Fiona Shaw (narrator)
Thomas Randle (Oedipus)
Susan Bickley (Jocasta)
Tigran Martirossian (Creon; Messenger)
Timothy Robinson (Shepherd)
Jeremy White (Tiresias),

BBC Singers (male voices), BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 6 October, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra made its move from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican just a year ago, and has been rewarded – like the LSO, the ’other’ resident orchestra – with a major £6 million refit of the Hall, which has been open to the public for less than a week. Sir Colin Davis and the LSO have already road-tested the acoustic with Mozart and Elgar; now Jukka-Pekka Saraste has opened the BBCSO’s season with French, Russian and Swedish works, providing the first opportunity to hear a chorus in the new acoustic.

The BBCSO chose to have its wind, harps, brass and percussion higher at the rear of the Hall than the LSO. With the choir not needed in the first half, the thought was to make best use of the space (bass drum and isolated percussion for Oedipus Rex had to be relocated behind the violins). Again the impression was of a much better balance, with greater detail within a warmer overall sound-picture, which is to be welcomed. More improvements are on the cards; I wish every success to the enlightened policy and funding decisions that can make such things happen.

Jukka-Pekka Saraste opened the programme, as befits a new season, with a fanfare. Although Dukas’s brass oration heralding his ballet is a perfect curtain-raiser, the rest of the work is a joy to hear; can I register my hope of a complete performance of La Péri before too long? A small string section (two basses, four each of cellos and violas, and six each of first and second violins) gave London its first hearing of a 15-year-old score by Jan Sandström, probably best known for his two trombone concertos for Christian Lindberg. Acintyas is a curious work, starting off with motivic rhythms punctuated by bass chords, which eventually – after a violin cadenza (from leader Michael Davis) – comes to a halt. Shifting sets of chords become the slow, ethereal central section, before a re-introduction of rhythm permeates the dancing of the last part.

The Second Suite of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, building from sunrise to general rejoicing that the titular heroes have been reunited, followed. I am never very convinced by this score, but hugely enjoyed this performance, picking out orchestral details which had not registered before. The playing was alert and exciting with the acoustic expanding to do full justice to Ravel’s orchestration.

Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex occupied the second half with Thomas Randle replacing an indisposed Kim Begley in the title role. Randle finds it almost impossible to keep still before or after performances. He gave a barely disguised fist-punch at the chorus as he came on, by way of encouragement, and even when the performance had started seemed to be mouthing the bass part of the opening chorus. His wide-eyed, tortured stance, leaning forward on his chair, once – when the most shocking revelations are being made about his character – with his fingers clasped to his mouth, contributed to the rising tension. This was nail-biting stuff. His is a clear, distinctive tenor voice and proved a great asset to this hugely welcome performance. Fiona Shaw narrated, with a few memory lapses from the printed text; her delivery, tailored for ease of understanding, contrasted helpfully with the monumental style of the music.

The three banks of male BBC Singers proved that the acoustic works for choral music too. The other soloists all hit their mark. I was captivated by the story-telling in what, to my mind, is one of Stravinsky’s most successful works. Saraste kept a tight rein and guided his massed forces through the great climax – where the chorus tell of Oedipus’s horror at realising he has killed his father and married his mother – to the coda, in which the citizens of Thebes bid farewell to the now-blind Oedipus. Thrilling!

  • This concert is broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday, 8 October, at 7.30
  • The next BBCSO concert at the Barbican is under its Chief Conductor, Leonard Slatkin. The European premiere of In Camera by Joseph Phibbs is followed by Korngold’s Violin Concerto (Leonidas Kavakos) and Sibelius’s Second Symphony
  • Barbican Box Office: 020 7638 8891

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