BBCSO/Robertson – 6 March

Violin Concerto No.2
Cantata profana
Listening Earth [UK premiere]

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)

Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 March, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Certain concert programmes look good on paper but fail in practice; others are doomed from the outset; while others appear promising but vindicate themselves only in performance. Such was true of this concert, with David Robertson making a welcome return to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Leonidas Kavakos proving himself a violinist of world standing.

The chief talking point might otherwise have been the UK premiere of Poul Ruders’s Listening Earth. Completed in the wake of 9/11, this 24-minute ’symphonic drama’ (the composer’s description) finds Ruders combining the organic metamorphosis evident in the Second Symphony with the flamboyance of such earlier works as the Solar Triptych (with a nod, however coincidentally, to the coruscating post-minimalism of Manhattan Abstraction). The confrontation of harmonic blocks with unfolding melodic lines builds an appreciable momentum; one which the later sections do not so much develop as channel in less uncompromising but more equivocal directions. A viable synthesis of ’past Ruders’, without suggesting much in the way of compelling possibilities for the future, it was vividly rendered by the BBCSO and Robertson – who gave the world premiere in Berlin in November 2002.

The concert had begun less demonstratively with Debussy’s Nocturnes – one of the relatively few avowedly Impressionist pieces by a composer synonymous with musical Impressionism. Robertson brought an elegiac quality to ’Nuages’ and a speculative brilliance to ’Fêtes’, while ’Sirènes’ exuded a sensuous but never claustrophobic intensity. The latter’s vocalise was enticingly blended into the texture, making this a performance to savour: unfortunately, not for those tuning in to the broadcast the following evening, when this item was dropped in the interests of Radio 3 scheduling!

Otherwise, Bartók was the order of the day, with two inimitable and highly contrasted works from the 1930s. The Second Violin Concerto can prove difficult in respect of finding a balance between its keen virtuosity and symphonic rigour. Focussed but never inflexible in his approach, Robertson set the scene perfectly for the questing brilliance of Leonidas Kavakos who was as attuned to the rhapsodic poise of the Andante as to the developmental interaction of the surrounding movements. Admirable a soloist as he has often proved, Kavakos here demonstrated a command of musical argument of the highest order. The outcome was a performance that powerfully reasserted the work as a highpoint in what was an abundant decade for significant violin concertos.

Cherished by Bartókians, Cantata profana remains under-appreciated elsewhere. The Hungarian language no doubt plays a part in this, more so the concept of a secular cantata whose symbolic import and spiritual underpinning might square uneasily with the formidable abstraction of the Third and Fourth Quartets or the Second Piano Concerto. Yet this very ambivalence marks it out as among Bartók’s most personal creations, as confessional in tone as it is inscrutable in form. This account went some way to clarifying the latter, while Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts coped ably with the unreasonable tessitura, as did Jonathan Lemalu his less striking but musically no less important contribution. Chorus and orchestra made a laudable impact in a work that their forebears premiered almost 70 years ago.

So, a satisfying and though-provoking concert. And, as on his earlier visits, David Robertson obtained an alert and sensitive response from the BBCSO – clearly a conductor with whom the musicians have a positive and most likely sustainable rapport.

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