BBCSO/Andrew Davis – Earthly Paradise

In the South (Alassio) – Concert Overture, Op.50
Violin Concerto in E minor, Op.64
Ian McQueen
Earthly Paradise [BBC commission: world premiere]

Akiko Suwanai (violin)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 10 April, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Sir Andrew Davis. Photograph: Victor SkrebneskiWith such a committed Elgarian as Sir Andrew Davis in charge it wasn’t any surprise that In the South received a blustery, no-nonsense performance, the swagger and confidence well contrasted with the more melancholic, wistful side of this wonderful piece, the heart-stopping viola solo given particular poignancy by Caroline Harrison. The BBCSO always respond well to Davis, even without a baton, which I’m not sure I’ve seen before from this conductor; and, just in case one needed reminding what a master of the orchestra Elgar was, every detail came through in what was a thrillingly confident account.

Akiko Suwanai. Photograph ©Universal Music / Martin RichardsonHaving had a bucket-full of Mendelssohn last year, the prospect of yet another performance of the ubiquitous E minor Violin Concerto was not one that I was particularly relishing, but there again I wasn’t expecting the sparkling performance given by Akiko Suwanai, replacing the indisposed Jennifer Pike. Perhaps she over-did portamento at the beginning of the first movement and it could be said that her Heifetz-inspired account of the finale perhaps was closer to Prokofiev than Mendelssohn, but the slow movement was beautifully poised and there can be no doubting Suwanai’s stunning technique, big confident sound and engaging platform manner. The BBCSO seemed equally impressed, giving a delightful, light and sympathetic accompaniment.

But what can be said of “Earthly Paradise”? No composer could have had more fervent or determined champions than the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, and Sir Andrew should be awarded a medal for so successfully guiding these large forces through this self-indulgent monstrosity, some 15 minutes longer than the 30 advised in the programme. Quite why any composer would be attracted to the endless, clunky, really quite dreadful text taken from the poetry/travel journals of William Morris, who really should have kept to his textile designing, is a mystery.

Sad to report that the musical setting more than matched the fears that reading the three pages of text made me fear. Apart from anything else, much of the work is simply inept, not what one might expect from a composer with wide experience in opera – totally unmemorable and unidiomatic vocal lines set against a hyper-active orchestra that rarely played below forte, often repeating lines from the already endless text and indulging in silly out-dated effects – imitating the sea in the fourth movement, for example, this really is the sort of thing that belongs in a not very good GCSE composition submission. Getting a chorus to speak in rhythmic unison is always a mistake, too – even singers as accomplished as those in the BBC Symphony Chorus sounded as if they were chanting the five-times-table.

Stylistically it’s impossible to report quite where Ian McQueen belongs – movement to movement, indeed minute to minute the music just didn’t seem sure what it wanted to be – not even an ‘English Oratorio’. Elgar and Walton came to mind occasionally, but also Tippett, Maxwell Davies, and one could go on – but for nothing of any great originality to appear in 45 minutes, well, this takes its toll on the listener. Honesty makes me report that a good proportion of the audience seemed to like the piece, and the composer was cheered – none of which alters the fact that “Earthly Paradise” is an expensive and disappointing failure.

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