Mozart Sampler with Ground
Sunrise Yellow Noise
The Fall of Babel [world premiere]
Three Pieces for Orchestra
Yvette Bonner (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd
Reviewed: 23 June, 2006
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
The stage in Studio 1 was set for a large orchestra with a significant battery of percussion, against which the small orchestra assembled, double woodwind, two horns and reduced strings, for Anthony Gilbert’s work seemed oddly out of proportion. Gilbert notes that the work is a gentle reflection on sampled passages from Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K550) with a ground line based on the pitch letters of Mozart’s given names Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus. The music open with a pattern of repeated phrases on viola and cello. A violin melody rose gradually over an intermittently rhythmical accompaniment and melodic lines seemed to be developed from small fragments in the orchestral texture, not always recognisable as the apparent Mozart source. The music reached a climax with prominent horns over frenetic strings; a well-crafted piece.
Triple woodwind, four horns, trumpets and trombones joined the strings for Tansy Davies’s work, which was the shortest of the five given at this concert. Davies notes her fascination with architecture especially that of Zaha Hadid. Tilting uses the orchestra with the sort of distorted perspective often found in Hadid’s buildings. This was an immediate contrast to the Gilbert, edgy urban music full of jagged edges, somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, with snatches of jazz rhythms and many slapped pizzicatos from lower strings. The complex rhythms demanded the players’ utmost concentration. The slower central section, supported on long, strong chords gave prominence to the celesta in tandem with repeated low bass notes to suggest a nocturnal feel. The opening urban music reappeared, punctuated by ever more angular off-beat chords until the violins crept in under the texture with a melodic line and the work ended with the sound of a suspended cymbal.
Simon Holt’s setting of Emily Dickinson dispenses with violas and cellos, allowing the violins to spread right across the conductor, but uses full woodwinds, including a contrabass clarinet, a rarely seen monster probably 10 feet or more if fully uncoiled. The work opens with a wordless intonation from the soprano over single resonating harp notes, followed by a brief splurge of woodwind and high double bass harmonics. Fluctuating patterns of violin notes and low flutter-tonguing from flutes and tuned gongs shattered such stillness. Yvette Bonner sang the first four lines of the text, decorated by flecks of percussion, followed by an orchestral outburst dominated by snarling trombone glissandos which segued into a lighter more ethereal texture, falling back to allow the soprano to be heard in the next four lines, set in a more fragmentary way, rising to a climax on the third line, which gives the work its title, and the final line is sung pianissimo over more glissandos culminating in a single soft note.
David Gorton’s The Fall of Babel was commissioned by the SPNM for a project with the BBCSO during the season just finished and takes as its starting point The Tower of Babel by Pieter Breugel the Elder. The music opens with high flutes revealing an adventurous palette of textures dominated at the opening by contrabassoon with a prominent tuba solo. Rushing string textures underpinned by tuned drums, followed by another tuba solo, lead into a dense fluctuating texture, setting up oscillating patterns of string quavers and creating an iridescent texture that gradually intensified bringing in the four horns and strings over rhythmic drumming and then thinned down to a handful of solo strings. The texture gradually built up giving successive prominence to flutes, celesta, xylophone and bells reaching a second peak and winding down gradually to harp notes over string harmonics.
Simon Bainbridge’s music has appeared in the BBCSO’s winter seasons and he has a new commission to be premiered by the orchestra in February 2007. Of his Three Pieces, the first is based on a fragment from the ‘Abschied’ of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, a tiny rising phrase in the winds immediately recognisable. The Mahler fragment develops gradually, quite different from its original context, until the Piece ends with a longer quotation from the same starting point. Two antiphonal percussion sections wielding an impressive array of instruments propel the second Piece. Against this duet, agitated snatches from the orchestra criss-crossed edgily, dodging between jabs from brass and snapped bass pizzicatos. At this fast tempo string lines had a slithering quality, held in check by the percussion rhythms and settling to repeated oscillating patterns which sounded faintly Sibelian. The final Piece is designed as a memorial to Bainbridge’s friends and colleagues who died during 1997. The slow intonation of harp and bells immediately delineates the music’s funeral character, low brass chords contributing to a processional, highlighted by lamenting chords in woodwind and the eerie sounds of a struck gong lowered unto water and finally winding down to a bassoon solo.
Zsolt Nagy was a disciplined conductor, using clear gestures without a baton, his period as assistant to Peter Eötvös clearly revealed both in his technique and approach to the music, and elicited a focused response from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Of the five works the Bainbridge seemed the most assured and the Gorton the most appealing. None of these works would fit easily into a conventional orchestral concert, and it needs the resources and resourcefulness of the BBC to mount such performances.
- Concert recorded for future broadcast in BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now