BBCSO/Leonard Slatkin

Joseph Phibbs
In Camera [BBC commission: European premiere]
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 October, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

In Camera had its premiere in Macau a week ago as part of the BBCSO’s short trip to China. In five movements totalling thirteen minutes, Joseph Phibbs, London-born in 1974, displays an enviable command of the orchestra. Although acknowledging Ives, Carter and Birtwistle as influences – Phibbs studied with the latter – his own expression doesn’t remind of them; indeed, he is still developing a personal language. Currently studying in America with Steven Stucky, Phibbs appears impressed by the American ’middle-ground’ composers – In Camera is accessible and pleasing; Phibbs’s coloration, and his creation of mood and atmosphere, are compelling features.

Phibbs conceives smaller ensembles from within the full orchestra – one with enough percussion (no timpani) to keep five players busy – musically representing American landscapes: the ’camera’ that is chamber music and image-capturing. Formally, Phibbs is concerned with concurrently evolving structures – echoes of Elliott Carter here – and how ’background’ details can become ’foreground’ in the musical line. The fleet, iridescent second and brief, mechanistic third, which in its ’hard’ orchestration reminds of the ’wilder’ of Boulez’s Notations, contrast the preludial opening movement of slowly ripening orchestral density – “the far-reaching view over the hills and forests of New York State” – itself developed in the static, nocturnally-shaded, light-flecked fourth section, “the mesmerising aspect of New York City from an aeroplane at night – a view that, since finishing this work, now has more tragic connotations”. The final section is virtuoso writing – reciprocated by the BBCSO – a ’Con molto anima’ with trombone ’humour’ that seems slightly misplaced. Phibbs has a technical armoury and an imagination that should see him go far; I look forward to his writing something of genuine symphonic argument.

Korngold’s adorable Violin Concerto is derived from his film scores – it admirably proves that good concert- and film-music is indivisible; Korngold was writing what we call ’film music’ before the genre came into being. Kavakos had the technical measure of the solo part if not always Korngold’s heartfelt lyricism – the first movement, while affectingly intimate, was a shade too withdrawn; something emphasised by an occasionally thin top register. The slow movement, magical, confidentially eloquent, found Kavakos fully appreciative of Korngold’s expressive use of dissonance; fragile threads of emotion hung in the air. The dazzling finale, controlled yet freewheeling, had moments of enchanted fantasy reminding of Glazunov’s delightful concerto; throughout, Slatkin and his orchestra provided a subtle, vivid and exuberant accompaniment. In response to the audience’s ecstatic reception, Kavakos offered a transcription of Tarrega’s guitar piece, Recuerdos de la Alhambra; that’s what it sounded like to me!

Now starting his second year, Leonard Slatkin’s hugely welcome appointment to succeed Andrew Davis as the BBCSO’s Chief Conductor has been somewhat inconsistent, partly because the BBCSO is not always the most ensemble-conscious band around; especially successful though have been a Maida Vale Tippett Second Symphony, Proms Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony and a Bernstein CD for Chandos. The Last Night of this year’s Proms, the ’memorial’ for September 11, seemed to strengthen immeasurably their bond.

This absorbing Sibelius Two found the BBCSO concerted and concentrated, blooming in the precise and involving Barbican acoustic – the brass integrated, the strings ample and radiant, the woodwinds characterful. It’s been a good few weeks for Sibelius’s Second in London – Pletnev, Colin Davis, now Slatkin. Where Davis was rugged, Slatkin was richly-moulded, a bardic narrating of nationalistic fervour, the drama of the first two movements emphasised by an attacca that, in my experience, only Sir Charles Groves and Kurt Sanderling have had the genius to make. Slatkin caught the music’s sweet reflection and turbulent interruption, an adrenaline-feed straight into the symphony’s inner-strength and resolve. The scherzo went like the wind – the elemental ’rush’ that is so typical of Sibelius; the finale’s closing bars, culminating consistently vivid and deeply expressive characterisation, was not so much jubilant as ennobled – your reviewer will admit to wiping away a tear!

  • BBC Radio 3 broadcast 30 October, at 7.30.Click here to Listen on-line
  • Tuesday, 6 November at 7.30, Studio One, Maida Vale, Leonard Slatkin conducts a New Generation Artists concert – Prokofiev Piano Concerto 2 (Alexander Melnikov), Arias by Rachmaninov and Borodin (James Rutherford) and Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (Ilya Gringolts). 020 7765 2549
  • Saturday, 10 November at 7.30, Barbican Hall – Slatkin conducts Britten’s War Requiem. 020 7638 8891

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