Donatoni premiere

Prom [BBC commission: world premiere]
Violin Concerto No.2
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 May, 2001
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

For the last BBC Symphony concert of the season, and among the last concerts before the Barbican Hall undergoes its summer refurbishment, a well-balanced programme saw a world premiere and a revival set against classics of the twentieth-century concerto and symphony repertoire.

Although he made little headway outside new-music circles in the UK, Franco Donatoni latterly enjoyed the advocacy of the BBC, whose commission was almost the last work he completed (he died last October aged 73). There seems to be uncertainty over whether the composer mistakenly assumed the piece was to be for the 2001 Proms or, if it was, whether it was subsequently rescheduled: confusion Donatoni would likely have relished. In any case, this is of small consequence next to the intrinsic musical quality of the piece itself. Typical of his work over the last quarter-century, it grows out of basic motivic and rhythmic components, scored with an almost classical regard for textural and dynamic clarity. Moreover, the initial semiquaver pattern sets up an underlying pulse that holds good for the whole work, so that accenting of material off the beat can be perceived in the context of a stable ongoing motion, however capricious the ideas along the way. No more so than the prolonged series of chords which end the work in a mock-tragic atmosphere worthy of Beckett. At nearly 15 minutes, Prom is a substantial and absorbing piece that merits further performances. A pity Donatoni could not share in its success.

The revival was Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Giro, a nine-minute tone poem which began life in 1982, and reworked 15 years later, including use of a computer programme to give the harmony a directional focus. The result is attractive and unassuming: textures of varying translucency interacting and climaxing in a Messiaenic chordal passage across the orchestra, before calmly undulating strings effect the kind of conclusion typical of many works over the last decade. Enjoyable, if less indicative than such recent works as LA Variations or Mania as to what Salonen the composer is capable of.

Thomas Zehetmair was at his most incisive and searching in an inspirational account of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. The conceptual equation of the work was decisively solved: how to articulate the outer movements as formal and expressive variants of each other, so that the latter brings a genuine sense of closure to the whole, without losing sight of the music’s emotional immediacy – placing the concerto in the same orbit as the composer’s American orchestral works. Zehetmair succeeded with playing alternately dynamic and tender, while Saraste was fully in control of the orchestra’s contribution; ostensibly in the nineteenth-century Romantic vein, until you realise just how much the subtlety of timbre and texture is a refinement of his mature idiom over the previous decade. A BBC Music Magazine cover-mount release would be well worthwhile.

While Sibelius Five was not in the same league interpretatively, it was a performance of character. The Olympian opening was calmly rendered, and while the first movement had more of a sectional feel than is ideal, Saraste judged well tension and release going into the ’Allegro moderato’ continuation. True, the gear-change was perceptible, and momentum was not fully maintained through to the airborne close, but incidental detail, such as the return of the ’largamente’ music, was well characterised – the excellence of the playing compensating for some rough ensemble at the outset. If Saraste did not quite realise the intermezzo-like lightness of the ’Andante’, he conveyed its equivocations of mood with sure intent. The finale was generally well handled, the opening tremolando idea well articulated at a tempo which allowed easy transition into the magisterial second theme, though the horns were too prominent in what is among the finest examples of Sibelius’s ability to fuse parallel strands of activity so that motion and melody speak as one. The conclusion was naturally shaped, and though the accelerando into the closing chords was a tad premature, the chords themselves were convincingly judged. Few symphonies end with a QED such as this – and Saraste, without playing ’to the gallery’, gave the music’s elation its head.

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