BBCSO @ Maida Vale

Cello Concerto
Symphony No.4

Raphael Wallfisch (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 March, 2006
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concerts at its Maida Vale studios can normally be relied upon to throw up something interesting. So it proved in this afternoon concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, which provided a welcome opportunity to pay homage to one of the orchestra’s most charismatic Chief Conductors in his centenary year.

Antal Dorati occupied this position in the mid-1960s, during which time he gave an impressive number of world and UK premieres – while not neglecting his own compositional activities. Although it had been planned as far back as the 1940s, his Cello Concerto only reached completion in 1977 – largely at the prompting of Janos Starker, who premiered it in Louisville the following year. At 30 minutes, the work is large-scale in design; ingenious, too, in the way its brusque opening ‘Recitativo’ sets up an active concertante relationship between soloist and orchestra that is variously pursued in the central ‘Variazioni’ (its five contrasted numbers amounting to a fair-sized divertissement on its own), then intensified in the taut sonata process of the ‘Finale’. Walton and Barber, as well as the more expected Bartók and Hindemith, are evident in the thematic cut and Dorati’s forceful orchestration – without detracting unduly from the modest but personable individuality that those at all familiar with Dorati’s symphonies will have detected. Raphael Wallfisch clearly has empathy with the piece – his eloquent but never over-assertive playing was enticingly employed alongside Joseph Swensen’s expert direction of a concerto that, while hardly revelatory, certainly warrants occasional revival.

Even so, it hardly afforded the impact of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen’s Passacaglia. Together with Fartein Valen and Harald Saeverud, Irgens-Jensen is the most significant Norwegian composer after Grieg – with an impressive list of songs, choral and orchestral works to his name. Dating from 1927, the Passacaglia enjoyed not inconsiderable success in Western Europe between the wars, but was seldom revived thereafter. In the strictest sense, the title is misleading – the piece being more a ‘symphonic fantasy’ where passacaglia-form plays a relative role, with fugue and a contrapuntal introduction and interludes, in building a sizeable polyphonic edifice as long-breathed as it is elaborate. Yet for all the power with which the strategically prepared climaxes are unleashed, a distinctly meditative aspect finally wins through in a close of rapt contemplation. If just a little too literal in his control over the ebb and flow of its momentum, Swensen had the measure of the work’s granitic yet luminous scoring and sense of striving forward to yet more exalted goals. Music of such dynamism and integrity is not so common in any era that a piece pervaded by both can afford to remain so little appreciated. 2009, the 115th anniversary of Irgens-Jensen’s birth and the 40th anniversary of his death, offers a suitable occasion to explore him more and revive Passacaglia at the Barbican.

One wonders too, given the current dearth of performances in the 13 years since his death, whether Witold Lutoslawski will ever regain the eminence he enjoyed during his final quarter-century. As his last completed major work, the Fourth Symphony (1992) exhibits the probing yet unified idiom of his last decade in full measure – its two, ‘introductory’ and ‘main’, movements drawn into tight accord such that the music proceeds as a cumulative sweep of emotional intensity: moving from the darkly poetic and unexpectedly (intentionally?) Szymanowskian opening gestures, through a dynamic process of greater or lesser motion, to a refulgent climax then dispersal of activity – out of whose stasis the coda rounds off the formal and expressive circle. Masterfully realised in practice, the piece received a characterful and committed performance – little the worse for some fallibility of ensemble.

It concluded a rewarding programme such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra is happily giving frequently again at Maida Vale.

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