Kensington Symphony Orchestra – McCabe, Janáček & Shostakovich

Symphony ‘Labyrinth’ [London premiere]
Taras Bulba
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Kensington Symphony Orchestra
Russell Keable

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 November, 2009
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London

London has done well for symphonies by John McCabe in this, his seventieth year. Hard on the heels of the Salomon Orchestra’s fine account of his (Fifth) Symphony, ‘Edward II’, came a persuasive rendition of his (Seventh) Symphony, ‘Labyrinth’. The work was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as part of the celebrations marking the city’s 800th-anniversary: its title refers to the underground passages that run under the Edge Hill district which were built (most likely as a means of maintaining employment!) in the early-nineteenth-century; memories of these and the surrounding environs being uppermost in the composer’s mind when he set out to write the present work.

Among its predecessors, the new work most resembles the ‘Fourth Symphony’ (McCabe preferring not to number his symphonies as such) in its being cast as a continuous single-movement. The initial contrast between the airborne woodwind and cavernous lower strings sets up a ‘darkness to light’ metaphor whose salient musical motifs ensure a gradual yet palpable sense of momentum, building via what seem to be two intensifying stages (with a ‘plateau’ of poised melodic writing between them) to a powerful though never unduly rhetorical climax; after which, the music quickly subsides into a largely tranquil epilogue where the main motifs reappear in a final and suitably retrospective context.

Labyrinth was given an unfailingly cohesive reading by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and Russell Keable, who has done much to champion McCabe’s orchestral music over the years. Hopefully what amounts to one of the most important and career-spanning symphonic cycles by a living composer (British or otherwise) will be recorded in the period between now and McCabe’s 75th-birthday year. How about it, Dutton?

Following this unfamiliar and demanding piece with Taras Bulba was no easy task, but the KSO rose to the challenge unanimously. Keable set a relatively spacious tempo for ‘The Death of Andriy’, but the alternation of anxiety and allurement was well sustained through to the tense close, while ‘The Death of Ostap’ proceeded purposefully to its lurid ending (parodying that in Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel?). Finest was ‘The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bulba’, which unfolded as a curve of mounting intensity toward its peroration then a close of bracing fervour – the important organ contribution thrillingly to the fore.

Such an ambitious programme could readily be forgiven its failings, which came in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony: a combination of Keable’s uncertainly as to its overall conception as well as a number of missed or approximate entries made this innovative take on sonata form less than the sum of its parts. Matters improved with a suitably boorish scherzo and a slow movement that found the just balance between subjective passion and emotional passivity. Keable also had the measure of the headlong zeal and searching ambivalence which denote the first two stages of the finale, though he hedged his bets with an apotheosis neither tragic nor triumphant but non-committal to a fault. A hit-and-miss affair overall, but one easily overlooked given the quality of the first half – not least one of the most insightful accounts of Taras Bulba heard in London during recent years.

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