BBCSO/Saraste – 31 January

Symphony No.6 in E flat minor, Op.111
Clarinet Concerto [UK premiere]

Kari Kriikku (clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 31 January, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Magnus Lindberg must feel well pleased with the coverage he’s received in London over the past year. Following the South Bank’s “Related Rocks” series comes the UK premiere of his Clarinet Concerto. Completed last year, this 25-minute work recalls the Nielsen concerto in its sense of organic evolution overriding several well-defined sections. The preludial opening introduces a number of ’character types’, extensively transformed in a slower section and scherzo before a lengthy cadenza – the latter part improvised – leads to an expansive climax and decidedly tonal resolution.

All praise to Kari Kriikku for his fluent and involving rendition of the solo part – often a tactile line of sound which threads its way across and through the densely-layered orchestral component, replete with the feeling for sonority and nuance which has long distinguished Lindberg’s writing. Yet there’s also a sense of coasting in the way that the harmony modulates between a sequence of sumptuous sonic canvasses – enticingly realised and beguiling to the ear, but a little complacent in overall effect. From a disciple of hard-hitting Finnish modernist Paavo Heininen, Lindberg seems to come disconcertingly close to the blissed-out soundworld of Rautavaara in the concerto’s overall ambience. Given the focus of its conception and flair of its realisation, the work more than holds the attention, but the feeling remains that this is ’Lindberg-lite’.

Interpretatively, the pieces either side were performance-lite too. Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony, by some way his most concentrated and powerful, receives far too few live outings for a work of its stature. Occupying the first half of the concert (surely this is a ’second half’ work bar none?), it received a clean, lucid performance from Jukka-Pekka Saraste, which only touched on the music’s deeper impulses. The principal themes of the opening ’Allegro moderato’ were soundly delineated, without setting up the degree of emotional contrast that affords the central climax the shattering impact it needs. Solemn and affecting, the ’Largo’ lacked pathos – rarely does Prokofiev evince the degree of compassion found here. Similarly, the hectic jollity of the closing ’Vivace’ was taken too much at face value – the baleful coda coming as a brusque if hardly chilling surprise.

Some excellent individual and ensemble playing, however, bodes well for Saraste’s future work with the BBC Symphony as Principal Guest Conductor. Whereas the account of Janácek’s Sinfonietta proved a strangely inhibited affair. After the initial ’Fanfares’ had been rendered none too securely, awkward tempo-changes blunted the incisiveness of the ’Castle’ and ’Convent’ movements. ’The Street’ had the right feeling of offhand capriciousness, but though the opening half of the ’Town Hall’ finale accumulated tension impressively, the expanded return of the opening fanfares lacked a corresponding emotional frisson – for which Saraste attempted to compensate by over-milking the clinching final bars. Enjoyable, but there’s more to this music than was evident this evening.

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