Michael Zev Gordon
Bohortha (Seven Pieces for Orchestra) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.4 in C minor, Op.43
Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 3 October, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra opened its 2012-13 Barbican Hall season with something both new and excellent. Londoner Michael Zev Gordon (born 1963) has written ‘Seven Pieces for Orchestra’ – together they total 20 minutes – related to time, its passing, and timelessness. Bohortha, also the title of the last movement, is “a tiny hamlet in Cornwall, where, close to the sea, the road stops.”
We begin with ‘Lost Worlds’ – atmospheric, suggestive and texturally busy if aided by lucid scoring for large orchestra. There is deep harmonic expression and the argument is resolutely propelled. The close is a surprise, but proves integral, the opening of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The second movement, ‘Broken Pieces’, includes further quotations, sympathetically woven, including from the ‘Abschied’ (Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde), Berg’s Violin Concerto and Ravel’s Mother Goose – clearly Gordon has loss and nostalgia top of his emotional agenda. What follows, whether fleeting, of secluded beauty, spectral or strident – the latter reports the ‘Terrifying Angel’ sixth movement which embraces Jewish sound-inflections, true to Gordon’s ancestry, and also reminding of Pierre Boulez’s Notation II – intrigue the listener whether Venice-related or conjuring ‘On Gossamer Wings’ and then that ‘Angel’ (after Rilke). The finale gently glints against woodwinds’ rapidity. There is a gradual sense of ‘coming to terms’ as gamelan colours fade to infinity. Whether the seven movements quite gel over the course, although it does seem that each could yield greater dimensions, there is no doubt that all intrigued and invited a return visit and that Bohortha as a whole enjoyed a notable first performance.
Alice Coote then gave a word-conscious account of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, finding nobility and operatic intensity as required, and an affecting mezza voce at other moments. Occasionally she was fragile but also human, and teasingly withdrawn, with the resolve in the darkness of ‘Um Mitternacht’ made palpable and the leave-taking of ‘ Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ dignified and moving. Solos on violin, oboe d’amore, cor anglais and horn were affecting, the BBCSO always sympathetic in tracing and supporting the singer.
Jukka-Pekka Saraste (here replacing the originally advertised Neeme Järvi) is an absolute musician with a comprehensive conducting technique that saw the BBCSO securely through the maze that is Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony (1936). You can see why the composer withdrew it, during rehearsals with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and then kept it under wraps for twenty-five years. He had already been accused of writing “muddle instead of music” and this symphony might have sealed his fate.
From the brazen opening Saraste led an urgent and edgy account of this seemingly sprawling score, incisively, emphatically and dynamically played, those grinding dissonances and outcries of despair were given full vent – just the thing to upset Stalin’s Soviet system. Unusually taut, as interpreted by Saraste, such organisation didn’t sacrifice the music’s codes, hallucinations, sarcasms, anxious screams, sudden pauses, eerie silences and mordent wit. Here was power and meaning swathed as one, the demonic mid-point fugue met head-on and taken to catastrophe. Such momentum and acidity was maintained for the short second movement (cut into but not interrupted by a vocal member of the audience) and all-belonging to its large outer-movement neighbours. The finale, beginning as a macabre funeral march, like the first movement, had all its variety and nightmarish diversions in place – fury, acerbic strings, fierce declamation, even a moment that seems jubilant (however faux) – then a parade of commedia dell’arte characters, led by the whimsy of a bass clarinet and a lengthy appearance by a buffooning trombone (Helen Vollom donning the complete costume) before the glowering and annihilating climax (two timpanists tattooing wildly) left a desolate landscape and desperation.
Scrupulously prepared and superbly played, but with the music’s nakedness unexpurgated, this was a remarkably convincing and compelling performance.