BBCSO/Bělohlávek – Beethoven and a Saariaho Premiere

Leonore No.3 – Overture, Op.72b
Romance in F, Op.50
Mirage [BBC co-commission: UK premiere]
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Jennifer Pike (violin)

Karita Mattila (soprano) & Anssi Kartunen (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 March, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Kaija SaariahoKaija Saariaho’s Mirage – written for two Finnish musicians who have featured prominently in several of her pieces – promised much, but disappointed. Not that Karita Mattila was other than mesmeric in the way that she all but choreographed her part, but the English translation of lines by Mazatec shaman María Sabina verged perilously on hippie-speak (had this been an incantation by Timothy Leary, then it would have been treated with derision) such as not even the great soprano could make effective; meanwhile, Anssi Kartunen’s alternately lyrical and incisive playing was reduced to little more than decoration of the orchestral texture – which if judiciously realised, as ever with Saariaho, was woefully short on musical substance. How much better to have heard this fine cellist in the composer’s recent concerto, Notes on Light – still awaiting its first UK performance. As it was, the present piece, even at a mere 14 minutes, just managed to avoid outstaying its welcome.

Jennifer PikeThat Mirage was actually shorter than expected no doubt explains the late addition of Beethoven’s Romance in F; no hardship when it was performed with such discreet elegance by Jennifer Pike, whose musicianship has come on apace since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year six years ago when only twelve. Whether or not its inclusion had lessened rehearsal time for Leonore No.3, neither the BBC Symphony Orchestra nor Jiří Bělohlávek were at their best here. The introduction, staid, evinced little mystery, and though the distant trumpet calls towards the overture’s centre lacked nothing in theatrical immediacy, the coda – vigorous but in no sense thrilling – hardly caught the breath as it needs to.

The account of the Seventh Symphony was a good deal more engrossing. Notable too in that Bělohlávek had resisted any token ‘authenticity’ in his interpretation – opting for a weighty though never turgid approach to the first movement’s slow introduction which contrasted well with the steady but cumulative Vivace that followed, and in which rhythmic consistency was maintained throughout. The Allegretto had gravitas without unnecessary ponderousness (Bělohlávek opting for an unexpected but effective combination of bowed and pizzicato strings in the closing bars), though the scherzo was somewhat undersold by the excision of the second-section repeat (the only such omission in this performance), as well as uncertain pacing of the trio, which suggested Bělohlávek might well have liked to return to a ‘pilgrim’s song’ stateliness. The finale was the real highlight: reigned-in but with a tensile energy that carried through to a coda which, though less than inexorable (and antiphonal first and second violins really pays dividends here), capped the reading with a powerful QED. 196 years on and the work’s unnerving vitality remains undimmed.

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