BBCSO/Swensen – Inextinguishable

En Saga
Your Rockaby
Symphony No.4 (Inextinguishable)

Martin Robertson (saxophone)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 19 March, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This intriguingly constructed programme played to a small but generally attentive audience, neatly accommodated in the Barbican stalls.

Joseph Swensen, something of a publicist’s nightmare, can be an unflamboyant podium presence and on this occasion he abstained from much in the way of sign-posted interpretation until the second half.

En Saga, not one of its composer’s greatest pieces in any event, was bright and detailed even so; the orchestra’s best quiet playing was reserved for its chamber-like interlude and an evocative last-post featuring some beautifully sustained clarinet playing from Richard Hosford.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s sensational Your Rockaby occupies a rather different place in his output. Always intended for Martin Robertson, it is among the most successful of his works in any genre, its presence in this concert being officially tied to the Barbican Centre’s current Samuel Beckett strand. Dating from 1993-4, it’s a saxophone concerto in all but name, exquisitely scored and eminently approachable without being remotely ‘soft’. Physically at least Swensen didn’t swing, but the stylistic mix felt completely natural and received ardent advocacy from the player who inspired it.

Nielsen’s Inextinguishable is always best heard live, even with an orchestra which lacks the heft to convince us that it is capable of drowning out antiphonally placed sets of kettle drums. Its impact here was limited further by the ‘shouty’ effect of the BBC Symphony in full cry: the Barbican acoustic remains unforgiving. After the (delightfully turned) idyll of the second movement, Swensen inspired a full, attacking string sonority at the start of the third, only to lose focus with a soggy, sentimentalised reading of its hymn-like central section. When the underlying symphonic drama resumed, he pressed forward excitably and risked unbalancing the structure. The finale was again rapidly paced, very much in the trademark Swensen manner. The string contribution was barely audible from my seat and the glorious harmonies did not always have a chance to register. That said the effect was undeniably exciting even if one suspects Nielsen had something else in mind.

Decide for yourself when the concert is broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Monday 20 March at 7.30 p.m.

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