BBCSO/Slatkin – 13 May

Sibelius arr. Stravinsky
Prokofiev orch. Susskind
Visions fugitives
Clarinet Concerto [UK premiere]
Symphony No.5 in B flat, Op.100

Richard Stoltzman (clarinet)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A distinctive and unusual concert beginning with two homages, Stravinsky’s to Sibelius and Walter Susskind’s to Prokofiev.

To start in the middle with the main event, Rautavaara’s concerto, first performed in Washington last year. Sadly there were all too few people present to hear what may well become an established part of the clarinet repertoire. If Rautavaara is not be the most groundbreaking of composers, his music is unfailingly well written and speaks to the listener with directness and immediacy. Structures are immediately apparent, even at a first hearing. This concerto exerts a pull on one’s emotions; who else today would write the sort of melody worthy of the Barber Violin Concerto with which Rautavaara’s slow movement opens?

The concerto’s very opening plunges one into the most intense drama, which quickly subsides and leads to an extended ecstatic passage; at the centre of the movement is a huge cadenza, composed by Stoltzman, exploiting every aspect of the clarinet’s range, eventually joined by a bass clarinet and leading to a remarkably opulent string passage, rather as if one had been cast adrift on an unending ocean. The central ’Adagio’ opens with that long sinuous melody from the soloist, immediately memorable, which is then decorated with a horn descant. During the meditation there is scarcely a rest for the soloist. If one had a criticism it would be that more sparing use of the material might have created an even greater effect – less being more. In the Finale the drama of the opening resurfaces and leads to an agreeably romantic second subject; at first hearing this movement seems less structurally worked out, and the ending oddly perfunctory.

This UK premiere was surely everything a composer could wish for – high on commitment and vital from first note to last. Stoltzman may not have the most velvety tone but he commands an impressively wide range of colour, which he deployed to full effect. There was some roughness – far better this than bland perfection, and anyway the music lies at the outer reaches of the playable. Slatkin and the BBCSO accompanied as if they believed in every note.

The concert opened with Stravinsky’s “homage” to Sibelius, an arrangement dating from 1963 of the Canzonetta from Sibelius’s music for Kuolema for the unlikely octet of four horns, clarinet, bass clarinet, harp and double bass. Unlike Stravinsky’s magpie re-workings of other composers, which invariably sound like Stravinsky, this would make a perfect quiz question: name the arranger? There are absolutely no give-aways.

This was followed by an altogether more substantial transformation – also from the 1960s and also of music originally written in the second decade of the last century: Walter Susskind’s orchestration of Prokofiev’s aphoristic and elliptical set of 20 piano pieces, Visions fugitives. Susskind (1913-80) was a fine pianist as well as an excellent conductor (one of Leonard Slatkin’s teachers, Susskind preceded Slatkin at the St Louis Symphony). His arranging of these brief piano pieces – they average about one minute each – works surprisingly well, the varied orchestrations making use of the widest orchestral palette used with extreme delicacy. Curiously in both the second and sixth pieces the world of Stravinsky’s Firebird seems very close. Perhaps the most remarkable pieces came at the end of the sequence – No.17 (Poetico) occupies that hallucinatory world between sleeping and waking, while No.18 (Con una dolce lentezza) is Prokofiev’s menacing take on a ’valse triste’. The performance was uniformly excellent – an interesting and highly worthwhile pendant to the coverage of Prokofiev fifty years since his death.

One of Prokofiev’s most played works, Symphony No.5, completed the concert. Conducting from memory and with absolute confidence, Slatkin knows this score inside out. For the most part the orchestra played well, the violas in particular, though it was frustrating that the trumpets let the side down with split notes, and some lumpy playing in that most exposed of passages, the sinister return of the Scherzo – at moments like this one expects better from a major orchestra.

Some reservations too with tempo. The first movement was on the slow side and failed to flow naturally; instead of moving forward freely and naturally to its appointed end, the movement’s climax sounded dogged rather than mightily affirmative (as implied by Prokofiev’s own description, “a symphony of the greatness of the human spirit”). Similarly, the slow movement was dragged back and lacked its full quota of free-floating rapture. By contrast the Finale was taken marginally too fast leaving insufficient elbow room to characterise the quirkily distinctive second subject or for a feeling of pent-up power building up to register fully at the close.

However, the new and unfamiliar music of the first half makes it churlish to complain too loudly.

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