Exstatica – BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart with Marie Angel & Kate Winter

Ecstatic Orange
Verklärte Nacht [1943 version]
I Sonetti Lussuriosi
Pet Shop Boys, arr. Richard Niles
I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing

Marie Angel (soprano)

Kate Winter (vocals)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Keith Lockhart

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 19 November, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

The publicity promised “sexually explicit material”. The red-tinted specs handed out at the door suggested we might be set for the lurid excesses of a 1970s exploitation flick. In the event, the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Exstatica proved to be a fairly sober exploration of ecstasy in music. Aside from some mucky verse and an excitable soprano, it was all pretty tame – educational even, with BBC Radio 3’s Christopher Cook keeping his commentary strictly informative.

The coloured glasses would have been appropriate for Ecstatic Orange by Michael Torke (pronounced ‘torkey’, incidentally), but the instructions were to save them for the concert’s second half. Torke’s piece dates from his twenties – completed in 1985 – but it gives strong hints of the tonal post-minimalist style with which he’s now associated. At its most energetic, Ecstatic Orange exudes tumbling hyperactivity, flinging out prickly discords to depict the colour-induced confusion of his synaesthesia. Tonal language peeps through as Torke looks to depict a more blissed-out ecstasy, though as the piece rattles on, the composer’s excitement becomes rather tiring.

There’s more anguish and acceptance than ecstasy in Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, an orchestral re-telling of Richard Dehmel’s poem telling of man accepting his lover and her unborn child, conceived to another man. Schoenberg’s string sextet original was decried by some at its premiere in 1899 as a reheating of decades-old Wagner. We’re more inclined to see it as a last gasp of German romanticism, created by one of the architects of its undoing. Keith Lockhart and the BBCCO opted for the 1943 string orchestra version and, between them, made a particularly great impression in the radiant moment that the man expresses acceptance of his lover’s situation. This isn’t repertoire that this most adaptable of ensembles encounters often and there was a certain strain in some of the more frenetically expressive moments. This wasn’t a reading that clearly delineated the story, as the best performances do, but the gleaming conclusion found the right tone of relieved unity.

Michael Nyman’s I Sonetti Lussuriosi (Eight Lust Songs) upped the evening’s rude-word count, spewing out Renaissance filth until it became thoroughly boring. The red specs were intended to decode the surtitles and thus protect the fragile from offence; amusingly, the projected text was perfectly clear without them. Pietro Aretino’s sixteenth-century verse leaves nothing to the imagination (variations on ‘stick x in y’, ad infinitum) and Nyman’s innovation is to bypass the prurience of the words and set them to expansive and lyrical music expressing deeper intent. The repetitive nature of the texts, however, is unwittingly mirrored by Nyman’s orchestration, which varies not one bit as the songs progress. Marie Angel, for whom the songs were composed, acted out their male and female characters with relish; I really could have done without the sex faces, though.

The concert’s real oddity, however, was the last item – an orchestral setting of the Pet Shop Boys with South-African jazz-singer Kate Winter. The lyrics rhyme the title with “I want to throw all my clothes off and dance to The Rite of Spring”. The counterpoint of chugging instrumentation and Winter’s breathy delivery rendered it like something out of the surreal minds of Vic and Bob.

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