BBCSO/Eötvös – 15 Feb

Jet-Stream [BBC commission: world premiere]
La Mer

Markus Stockhausen (trumpet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Peter Eötvös

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 15 February, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This interesting, balanced and contrasted programme demonstrated the integrity of composer/conductor Peter Eötvös, the BBCSO’s ready response to his direction and introduced a new work for trumpet and orchestra, Jet-Stream.

Eötvös wrote zeroPoints for Pierre Boulez to celebrate his 75th birthday and to conduct. It takes as its starting point the numbering of the bars in the score of Boulez’s Domaines, which begins at bar 0, instead of the customary bar 1. The intention was to create a work in which the music remains ’about to begin’. Thus there is a series of nine short sections, which indeed seem to suggest a new beginning on each occasion. What might appear from this description a very sectional, if not disjointed work, proved to be quite the contrary in this performance which had, under the composer’s direction, a most impressive sense of organic flow and continuity. An amusing beginning suggests the sound of tape hiss (double bass tremolos on the bridge), and an electronic beep (high clarinet) leads to an exhilarating passage that would not be out of place in one of Boulez’s more glittering scores, which themselves recall the sonority and texture of Stravinsky in Firebird-mode.

An exhilarating dance ensues, heralded by a radiant major chord from the full orchestra, and coloured by the distinctive timbre of steel drums. Thereafter, various sections of the orchestra are featured, suggesting a concerto for orchestra. Notable is a passage for the double basses with some quite beautiful chordal writing and isolated, expressive, high notes – the playing of which was exemplary. There is a moment for flutes and celesta that suggests an almost Tchaikovsky-like charm. Moments of repose are short-lived, however, in this propulsive work which grows in pace and frenzy before being cut off by a downward scale and isolated notes from a xylophone. zeroPoints is altogether impressive.

Jet-Stream, completed last year, was written for the astonishingvirtuosity of Markus Stockhausen, who commands an incredibly wide range of sounds and, indeed, styles – he is active in jazz and quasi-improvisation, plays traditional repertoire and also the innovative pieces by his father Karlheinz, whose influence informs certain aspects of Eötvös’s new score – such as passages where isolated notes are repeated freely, like Morse-signals, or short phrases played ’ad-lib’. There is also the quasi-dramatic device of the soloist turning to the orchestra to, as it were, initiate or generate further musical activity.

The energy and forward motion makes Jet-Stream a close relative of zeroPoints, and here surely is a contemporary example of programme music, wherein the score vividly reflects the title of the composition. One indeed had the feeling of flight and passing rapidly over an ever-changing landscape. The trumpet has passages of alternately long-held notes and rapid, virtuosic writing ranging from the very top to the very bottom of what is humanly possible on the instrument. It was a credit to Markus Stockhausen that he ensured that his music was no mere display of technique but an integral part of a complex musical tapestry. The orchestra provided a kaleidoscope of sound with intricate rhythmic writing predominating; a group of trumpets placed at the front of the platform, behind the soloist, engage in dialogue and sometimes conflict. Their final, blues-inflected phrases provide a reflective conclusion to an otherwise hectic yet exuberant journey. As a first performance, this was commendably secure and convincingly projected, but I can imagine that greater familiarity would enable faster tempi to be adopted – a greater degree of abandon would have made the flight even more intoxicating.

The lucidity of Eötvös’s own music was echoed in his conducting of two of Debussy’s masterpieces. The ever-enigmatic Jeux benefited from bright, clear textures and lithe orchestral sound. Woodwind solos were piquant and the sense of interplay between instruments brought to mind the ballet’s original – admittedly inconsequential – scenario, which concerns a tennis game. In this potentially sectional score, Eötvös did not linger between episodes, giving the whole a sense of integration, yet not lacking humour and choreographic liveliness.

Eötvös’s vision of La Mer was bracing – as befits music conceived in Eastbourne! – rather than the languorous view of, say, Karajan. Once again, details of scoring were brought to light, though not intrusively, and the way in which the first movement came to life was most impressive. ’Jeux de vagues’ was truly the scherzo of these “Three Symphonic Sketches” with light, playful moments set against more turbulent ones. In this movement, as elsewhere, the quiet playing that Eötvös elicited from the BBCSO was praiseworthy in a score where dynamic contrasts are often overlooked in performance. ’Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ began ominously and set the mood for a finale in which Debussy’s mastery of the orchestra could be fully admired. The oboe’s phrases were more plaintive than is often the case, and benefited from the space Eötvös created to enable the music to breathe. If the final pages did not rush headlong to a mushy and breathless conclusion, one could admire the way thematic strands were brought together in a convincing symphonic argument.

A pity there was not a larger audience to savour this high quality music-making. Radio 3 listeners will be able to do so on Friday, 21 Feb, at 7.30.

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