BBCSO/Litton Soile Isokoski [Phoenix … Ein Heldenleben]

Hoyland
Phoenix [BBC commission: world premiere]
Strauss
Hymne an die Liebe, Op.71/1; Das Rosenband, Op.36/1; Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland, Op.56/6; Morgen!, Op.27/4; Cäcilie, Op.27/2
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40

Soile Isokoski (soprano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 January, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Andrew Litton. Photograph: Danny TurnerThe English composer Vic Hoyland (born 1945) has completed his orchestral triptych that consists of Vixen (1997), Qibti (2003) and, now, Phoenix (2006-7). Or – Palermo, Alexandria, and Venice – given that the composer has revealed the pieces’ respective inspirations. Certainly Phoenix does vividly suggest Venice (and the inner ear has been ‘trained’ in this regard by Britten’s final opera, “Death in Venice”), numerous watery glints carefully composed into the score, the use of an electronic keyboard extending the timbres on offer. But geographical associations are starting-points; the musical results are the ones that matter. On a first hearing (and that must be stressed), Hoyland’s use of a large orchestra is often striking, but the musical invention seems less so, and the constant use of tuned percussion seems too much of a good thing over the work’s 26-minute course. It was also difficult to follow a sustained structure, to the extent that the fastest and wildest music came as something of a relief in itself if not necessarily perceived as part of a developing whole. Indeed, such is the complexity of the score that the composer’s preoccupation seems more vertical than linear.

But any ‘first doubts’ have nothing to do with an excellent premiere, the BBC Symphony Orchestra taking the music in its stride and Andrew Litton conducting with evident enthusiasm and care. Phoenix certainly needs to be heard again (the BBC iPlayer seven-day service will come into its own here – this concert was a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3) and it would be good to hear all three pieces in a single sitting, something that the BBC Symphony is uniquely placed to give.

Richard Strauss’s music occupied the rest of the programme. The selection of five Lieder (replacing “Drei Hymnen”) drew from Soile Isokoski selfless artistry, effortless phrasing and exact pitching, Litton and the BBCSO providing attentive and detailed accompaniment. If “Hymne an die Liebe” is too extended, it is only as long as Hölderlin’s text, yet musically it seems it should end earlier than it does; here, Isokoski seemed a little uncertain (and required the score). She was in full (if unforced) bloom for the remainder of this selection, but was unable to convince (a tall order anyway) that “Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland” is but irredeemably sugary. The other three songs are amongst Strauss’s finest, not least “Das Rosenband”, one of the composer’s loveliest creations, but this account didn’t quite touch the soul. “Morgen!” was exquisite though, and “Cäcilie” suitably ecstatic as a wholly natural outpouring.

As for Ein Heldenleben, it began in ripe and lusty fashion, just a little beefy in sound, the ‘hero’ (it might just be Richard Strauss himself) somewhat pompous and self-satisfied (which may be a reasonable characterisation) but rather sagged later. ‘The Hero’s Adversaries’ (critics!) were a viperous lot – fair enough – and there was much tenderness to introduce ‘The Hero’s Companion’, although Andrew Haveron’s violin solos (representing Pauline Strauss) were rather too exaggerated. ‘The Hero’s Battlefield’ was not the last word on accuracy or good balance (there was certainly a warlike melee but the musical line was lost – and the preceding off-stage fanfares were far too close as heard from behind the audience, there being no dynamic contrast for their two appearances). Although, in ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’, the quotations from other Strauss pieces had a certain wit, there was overall a generalised approach that made Ein Heldenleben sound every second of the 50 minutes (really rather long) that this performance took, and which needed more distinctiveness and instinct to sustain it.

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