Britten, orch. David Matthews
A Charm of Lullabies
Symphony [London premiere]
Symphony No.1 in B flat minor
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 12 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Just into his early ‘30s, English National Opera’s Music Director designate Edward Gardner made his Barbican debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in an enticing programme. An unconventional design of two contrasting vocal pieces of Benjamin Britten framing the London premiere of Julian Anderson’s Symphony made up the first half, an arrangement that worked well.
Sarah Connolly was in alluring vocal form. Britten composed “A Charm of Lullabies” in 1947 for Nancy Evans. David Matthews (who worked with Britten) scored the piano part in 1990 for an orchestra of woodwinds, horns, strings and harp. Matthews’s scoring is convincing, sometimes seductive, and never threatens the essential simplicity of those settings that carry a ‘lullaby’ element; but there is also ‘patter’ and anguish, and ‘A Charm’ (the fourth song) rages “Quiet!” on the babe might just pass (as orchestrated) from a Bernstein or Menotti stage-work. The first three settings (Blake, Burns and Robert Greene) are linked, so too the remaining two (Thomas Randolph and John Philip); the opening and closing numbers ‘rock’ in true cradle style, the orchestra sounding as if it was always Britten’s original conception. Connolly brought demonstration and sensitivity to her task.
As she did, too, adding dramatic intensity, to Britten’s vocal swansong, “Phaedra” (composed, after Racine, in Robert Lowell’s English version, in 1975 for Janet Baker, Britten died the following year). Taking its structural cue from Handel’s ‘Italian’ cantatas (not least “Lucrezia”), Britten fashioned one of his finest works, an opera in microcosm, utilising a small orchestra (strings and percussion) to colourful effect, the recitatives underpinned by a continuo of harpsichord (Liz Burley) and cello (Graham Bradshaw). Connolly, in a conception very different to Janet Baker’s (and rightly so), gave an account of vivid defiance and repentant eloquence as the remorse-filled Phaedra who falls in love with her husband’s son Hippolytus and declares her love when Theseus is reported killed in battle; when he returns unharmed Phaedra falsely accuses Hippolytus of seduction, which results in his father slaying him. Phaedra takes poison. Connolly’s deep conviction and word-painting was compelling; so too Gardner’s precise and telling regard for expression, texture and dynamics, Bradshaw’s cello contributions especially revealing.
Julian Anderson composed his 18-minute Symphony for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sakari Oramo; the work is dedicated “in affection and gratitude” to the conductor. Scored for large orchestra (including a second piano tuned a quarter-tone below pitch, entirely for modal purposes), Anderson’s Symphony (completed in 2003) has an extra-musical inspiration in the form of a painting by Sibelius’s friend, Akseli Gallen-Kallela. “Morning by a Lake” suggests that the lake is unfreezing, the cue for Anderson to develop music of considerable impulse and melodious warmth from an almost-static beginning. Whether it be violin and viola bows ‘brushing’ the strings left to right, rather than ‘up’ and ‘down’ (as an ear-catching effect) or in fleet scherzo-like passages, eruptive outbursts and long melodic lines, the 12 sections of the work that the composer identifies – one lasts literally a single bar! – build into a singularly impressive whole, satisfyingly complex (even cacophonous) at times and, come the final, abrupt gesture, logically arrived at. Gardner seemed to secure a precise performance (maybe a little hasty in the opening?) that confirmed the stature of this exactingly wrought, glowingly communicative work that is already recorded.
Walton’s superb and passionate First Symphony, always a masterpiece for listeners without prejudice or those not prone to fickleness, seems to be having something of a renaissance at the moment (the Bergen Philharmonic brings it to this year’s Proms). That Gardner left no doubt as to what a great work this is was enthralling in itself, but there were moments that didn’t quite come off – the very opening lacked rhythmic definition; the Presto con malizia scherzo could have been more driven and harder-hitting; the Andante con malinconia lacked rapture; and the finale (which caused Walton considerable problems) was pushed along somewhat. Yet there was much to impress in terms of Gardner’s structural awareness, observance of dynamics and charting of climaxes. Clarity was another hallmark, so too some excellent solo contributions; if the performance didn’t consistently ‘hit the spot’ there was an ink-still-wet quality that rendered the music fresh and utterly distinctive.