Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra – 28 March

Four-horned Fandango [European premiere]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73(Emperor)
Stabat Mater

Timothy Brown, Michael Murray, Andrew Antcliff & Christopher Larkin (horns)
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Judith Howarth (soprano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Ian Bowers

Reviewed: 28 March, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Surely there has to be more of a theme to a concert than this miscellany? Apart from each piece needing soloists, it was difficult to find a link between the chosen works.

As if to prove this concert had turned programming on its head, the best came at the beginning. Four-horned Fandango seems to me one of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s finest pieces, music that begins in darkness and ghostly images. Its rich inventiveness and imposing atmosphere suggests the golden colours of Spain through orchestral power and indigenous dance. It’s an emotional score, one viewing motivic ideas from different angles; in this and the unremitting intensity, Harrison Birtwistle is recalled. The four horns dominate the scene while strings and percussion offers vibrant backing; the timbres change, the concentration doesn’t – until the Messiaen-like transcendence of the gleaming coda. The four horn-players were outstanding; Andrew Davis, long a Turnage champion, in his element.

The mystery then is why Davis and his former orchestra lapsed into a primary, undiscriminating if enthusiastic accompaniment for Beethoven. This Orchestra lacks the requisite culture for such repertoire; hopefully, Leonard Slatkin, Davis’s successor, will invest more character and discretion. Davis delivered an over-bright and forced exposition. Ironically, when something bright and shining was needed, the required details failed to break through. But then Thibaudet’s unsubtle, hard-edged pianism got the co-operation it deserved. Quite why he is held in such esteem is beyond me. His percussive touch, routine phrasing and lack of colour refute such critical conspiracy. Technically laboured – some very poor trills – and over-pedalling to cloudy effect, Thibaudet occasionally showed imagination but it was lost in a perfunctory rendition sadly typical of this pianist.

There was more than a feeling that Davis was intent on keeping Poulenc’s mix of piety and outrage as doctrinaire as possible. Written in 1949 on the death of a friend, Poulenc’s Stabat Mater walks a tightrope between profundity and sentimentality. Held aloft with sweet lyricism and radiant penitence, and belonging to this earth in its invective, the music’s sparseness reminds of Pergolesi’s famous setting. Moments of refined aura cite Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces and, surprising this, when resounding celebration of the deity is imbibed, Bruckner’s F minor Mass is recalled. Davis’s rendition seemed rather small-scale, despite expressive solos from Judith Howarth and some impressive singing from the chorus. Somehow the austerity, contemplation and anguish didn’t quite gel. If Davis gave us the text, he didn’t get under the skin of Poulenc’s setting of it.

  • The BBCSO and Martyn Brabbins explore Gliere’s rarely performed, epic ’Ilya Murometz’ Symphony at the Barbican this Thursday, 4 April – live relay on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30 Click here to Listen on-line
  • Box Office: 020 7638 8891 www.barbican.org.uk

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