BBCSO – Renewal – 3 October

Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Colin Matthews

Joshua Bell (violin)

BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 October, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Major new works can’t always count on being revived (when, for instance, are we to hear Robin Holloway’s Symphony again?), so it was good to encounter once more Colin Matthews’s Renewal (1991-6) four years after its premiere.

A composite work in the sense that it incorporates – whole or in part – two other works from earlier in the 1990s, Renewal is as ambitious as its title suggests. Interestingly, the climactic third section, ’Broken Symmetry’, sounds more coherent in its new context than when heard as an autonomous piece. The calculated imbalance of its alternating scherzos and trios, and the concurrent but separate strands of musical motion, suggests a Mahlerian take on latter-day Birtwistle – but the impetus of the music, as it works towards then away from a visceral central climax, is not in doubt.

Preceding it is a commanding ’Intrada’, replete with ricocheting offstage trumpet calls, and a less impressive ’Threnody’ (partly reworked from the earlier Memorial), whose dense accumulation of chords lacked a corresponding momentum. More worryingly, the final section, ’Metamorphosis’, failed to secure any real catharsis. With its tepid setting of extracts from Ovid – well projected by the BBC Symphony Chorus – and vaguely Holstian orchestral underlay, the music seemed to avoid rather than transcend what preceded it. So, despite committed if occasionally approximate playing from the BBCSO, and bracing direction from Sir Andrew Davis, this revival of Renewal proved less than a revelation.

A vivid if rather sloppily-played Fireworks provided an apt curtain-raiser. Then Joshua Bell brought scintillating technique but little in the way of interpretative insight to bear on Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Such passages as the first movement cadenza evinced some oddly mannered phrasing, part of an approach in which emotional subtlety was too often sacrificed for effect. The ’Adagio’, taut but yielding, was the highlight – though the breathless ’Finale’ (little sign of the ’ma non tanto’ qualification, either in the performance or in the BBC’s colourful new fold-out programme) was high on energy but short on exhilaration.

Bell is too fine a violinist ever to be considered crass, but his empathy with the music seemed, on this occasion, intermittent at best.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 22 October at 7.30

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