BBCSO/Nott Holt Premiere

Symphony No.44 in E minor (Trauersinfonie)
witness to a snow miracle [BBC commission: world premiere]
Erlkönig, fantasia
Symphony No.6 in C, D589

Viviane Hagner (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jonathan Nott

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 February, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

His appearances with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra at the Edinburgh Festival widely – and rightly – praised, Jonathan Nott remains a largely unknown quantity in his home country. His London Philharmonic debut began the process of changing this perception which this concert – both his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and at the Barbican – continued in no small measure.

As with those Bamberg performances, the present programme combined contemporary and Classical pieces to stimulating effect. Although they hardly receive the attention they deserve, Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies have their fair share of masterpieces: none more than the ‘Trauersinfonie’ – the unrelieved intensity of whose outer movements is hardly tempered by the canonic severity of its minuet (placed second), and thrown into merely temporary relief by the pathos of its Adagio. Using a relatively small string body, and directing with a judicious ear for textural and expressive contrast, Nott generated an impact such that the music did not so much project outwards as draw listeners unequivocally into its orbit. Moments of caution aside, the orchestra met the challenge accordingly.

There followed the premiere of Simon Holt’s witness to a snow miracle – actually a violin concerto whose seven short movements evoke the fate of St Eulalia, a fourth-century Christian martyr put to death by the Romans. Whether such an extra-musical dimension is of help or hindrance, the score itself is full of the precisely realised sonorities familiar from Holt’s ensemble works. Not that this piece is ‘orchestral’ in effect – with violas, cellos and trumpets absent, and trombones and tuba making ominous interjections into the intricate textures of violins and upper woodwinds. After a prefatory cadenza, the work follows a broadly cumulative trajectory toward the stark recessional of the final movement, with Viviane Hagner as attentive to the nuances of Holt’s idiom as she was to those in the concerto by Unsuk Chin at a previous BBCSO concert. Her keen-edged though rounded tone held attention effortlessly over the work’s 24-minute span and Nott gave further evidence of his undemonstrative skill as an accompanist.

A telling contrast was offered with Henze’s Erlkönig (1995) immediately after the interval. Described by the composer as an “orchestral fantasy on Goethe’s poem and Schubert’s Opus 1”, and derived from an earlier ballet, this is music ceaseless in motion and rich in incident of a kind that often tends to impede momentum in Henze’s orchestral scores. Here, however, onward motion is never in doubt – and though the presence of Schubert’s song is inferential at best, Goethe’s poem is vividly suggested by the music’s disquieting imagery. Nott, who includes the piece on his enterprising Schubert Epilog disc, drove it unsparingly yet never inflexibly and the full BBC forces gave it their collective all.

Which left Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Little C major’, to round off the evening in genial fashion. A favourite of conductors from an earlier generation, the piece receives few live outings these days – perhaps reflecting the way in which the poles of Beethoven and Rossini are brought into unlikely if characterful accord. Nott and the Bamberg SO have been working their way through the symphonies in concert and on CD, and this performance – of a work that the BBCSO is unlikely to have played often – uncovered much of the teasing formal and expressive ambiguity that lies beneath the music’s surface. Thus the opening movement was poised between Beethovenian sonata-allegro and Rossinian opera overture, the Andante exuded a capering gentility and the scherzo a blithe humour. Almost an overture ‘in the Italian style’, the finale needs careful handling if its circuitous progress is not to seem at all gratuitous. Nott duly obliged, then gave the coda its head such that its surge of energy brought the corresponding movement of the ‘Great C major’ tantalisingly within earshot.

So, a satisfying concert overall: one drawing a regrettably small house, but whose artistic success will hopefully encourage the BBC to extend a return invitation to this gifted and versatile conductor.

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