BBCSO/Brabbins – 20 February

La Péri
Violin Concerto [UK premiere]
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

Viviane Hagner (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 20 February, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

As the latest recipient of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award, there was palpable anticipation prior to the UK premiere of the Violin Concerto by Unsuk Chin – the Korean-born, Berlin-based composer who has impressed with works such as Akrostichon-Wortspiel (1993) and Fantaisie méchanique (1994). Her last concerto, that for piano (1997), often seemed to lose onward momentum in an array of harmonics and intriguing but speculative tunings. While the present concerto lacks nothing in aural finesse, its formal follow-through is relatively clear-cut; traditional even – with a cumulatively developing opening movement (complete with cadenza), a slow(ish) successor poised between the whimsical and the ethereal, a brief but acerbic scherzo, and a finale that reviews earlier ideas before evanescing in the face of a climactic tutti. Ligeti is a marked presence on both the substance and the soundworld of the piece, but the execution is wholly and satisfyingly that of Chin.

Such an impression was made more so thanks to the advocacy of Viviane Hagner – little known as yet in the UK, but whose security of articulation and undemonstrative ease in a work written with her musicianship in mind confirmed a performer of stature. Martyn Brabbins ensured alert and sensitive accompaniment – if such it can be termed! – from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Earlier, he had done justice to La Péri (1912), the poème dansé with which Paul Dukas signed off (at least in public) as a composer. Following the arresting opening fanfare, the ballet itself has that sense of restrained yearning and capriciousness which are familiar Dukas traits, with an underlying drive to ensure it never lapses into indulgence or expressive conceit. Less perfectly achieved as a span of music than Debussy’s Jeux (which it foreshadows in several particulars), La Péri made possible a direction in French music continued by composers as distinct as Roussel, Dutilleux and Ohana. Its revival is always welcome.

Not so much, perhaps, Also sprach Zarathustra – Strauss’s revelling in Nietzschean controversy, which can lack the wit of his earlier tone poems or the personality of those that followed. Brabbins kept the ’sunrise’ prelude firmly in check, and went some way to making the piece audibly cohere as pure music. One or two misjudgements (an ’Of Science’ fugue lacking gravitas, and an overly long pause before ’The Convalescent’) were outweighed by the overall clarity of conception. Even so the BBC might have given us the Second Symphony of either Roussel or Dutilleux – albeit not many would have shown up, or left at the interval – an assignment that so wide-ranging a conductor as Brabbins would doubtless have relished.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 5 April at 2 p.m.

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