BBCSO/Slatkin – 20 May

Symphony No.2 [UK premiere]
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.82
Symphony No.7 in C sharp minor, Op.131

Vadim Repin (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 May, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The string quartet that John Corigliano originally wrote in 1996 for the farewell tour of the Cleveland Quartet has, at the behest of the Boston Symphony, become the composer’s second symphony, one for string orchestra, achieved by “rewriting [the quartet] when necessary and adding to it when the opportunity arose”. Over its forty-minute-plus span, one never feels cheated that this symphony is without a full-orchestra palette of sound. The five movements constitute an arch design – Prelude to Postlude via Scherzo, Nocturne and Fugue – the whole being remarkably atmospheric and intense. It couldn’t have had a more committed or well-prepared British premiere, the composer in attendance.

Beginning on the slenderest tone and the quietest dynamic (to which the symphony returns but with added enigma), a (very subjective) first reaction is something inter-galactic is occurring; it’s to do with what one might term ’interstellar’ soundscapes. Of note, perhaps disconcerting (depending on your point of view), is Corigliano’s ease of cutting and pasting between 60s-sounding effects – glissandos, and a degree of latitude in how the players count to achieve independence from one another – and ideas that are ’antique’ (such as an archaic-sounding chorale, so described in my spontaneous notes). Then there are allusions to other composers – Bruckner for a split second at the very opening, which a ’queasy’ turn of pitch immediately banishes – Bartók, Shostakovich, even a hint of Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia. The Postlude’s two-note ’siren’ suggests the Finale of Mahler 9 (save Mahler doesn’t introduce quarter-tones); one might even cite Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, certainly regarding the imposing demands placed upon the performers by the two composers.

Yet, while listening-experience cannot divorce one from hearing such references, however coincidental they may actually be, it must also be said that Corigliano’s Second Symphony packs a huge punch and enthrals over its duration. On an initial hearing, one wonders how the Prelude and Scherzo quite fit the overall scheme, and feel that the pivotal and (first impression) starlit Nocturne could possibly ’hang alone’.

Corigliano’s Second Symphony suggests itself as an honest attempt to forge something significant from divergent musical history. Any sense of musical duplicity, and uncertainty regarding overall structure, are outcast with the (linked) Fugue and Postlude, the former severe (I noted), and this is indeed the composer’s marking, which becomes wild; and there is a real coming-together as the music reaches ’somewhere’ before returning to extremities. Perhaps best to say that, for the moment, Corigliano’s Second Symphony leaves a big impression, a welcome puzzle, and one wants to hear it again.

The interval could only come here – although listings suggested otherwise. The second half featured two of the loveliest works in the Russian repertoire, the Prokofiev rather deeper than is sometimes supposed.

Vadim Repin gave a generous and richly coloured account of the Glazunov. Amazing how sniffy people are with this composer – what’s wrong with this 20-minute concerto? (By the way, Glazunov’s for saxophone is worth seeking out.) The fiddle piece is sheer pleasure – lovely tunes, the whole enchanted and enchanting. Fine orchestral work too in this performance, lovingly phrased and detailed, under a smiling and dynamic-conscious Slatkin. Sometimes music need only be enjoyable! (The programme note claims Glazunov’s violin concerto begins with a slow movement. What about the woodwinds’ ’heartbeat’ momentum from the very beginning and the quite-clear second subject that delineates a regular sonata movement before a ’slow’ one enters after about four minutes?)

Prokofiev’s last symphony is a great deal more than it may seem – not music for children or a suite of generic pieces; it’s a great piece of subtlety and elusiveness, a nostalgic escape for its composer (to childhood maybe), a looking back tinged with disappointment: a bittersweet score. Slatkin did it proud, keeping the first movement’s structure tight without denuding the character of the varied ideas – one such is not the film music it is sometimes swooned into; rather, the expansive second tune seems more representative of an unattainable vision. Whether in balletic steps, the significance of chiming figures (bells are very important to the Russian psyche) or in clarity of texture, this was a wholly satisfying and revealing performance – of wit, charm, affection and, most importantly, an appreciation of the human aspect. Nowhere more so than in the wonderfully heartfelt ’Andante espressivo’ – lustrous strings showing no sign of Corigliano ’fatigue’.

Perky and pungent woodwinds underlined the Finale’s vaudeville, harp slashing through the texture. When the opening music returns it leads either to the flashy second ending that seems to have been imposed on the composer (after the premiere) – these were Soviet times when optimism was all – or (very rarely) to Prokofiev’s original, simple and volume-speaking conclusion. He knew (himself) best and first thoughts are often the most telling – as Slatkin demonstrated.

All-round excellence from the BBCSO, but I shall still be invidious and single out Elizabeth Burley’s piano contribution.

Nearly the end of the BBCSO’s Barbican season – John Adams conducts two performances of his El Niño on June 26 and 28.

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