BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 9 December, 2005
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

What is it about the British and their creative artists, that we don’t seem to be able to accept them at their true worth unless they are either young and trendy or very old, or just plain dead? In October in Berlin Andrew Litton conducted Odyssey with the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper in parallel with a new production of the Revised Version of Maw’s “Sophie’s Choice”, which was also staged at the Vienna Volksoper.

In London he conducts Odyssey in a studio concert barely publicised and attended by scarcely 150 people. It’s some consolation that the performance will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but to have a major work by one of our most senior and most important composers treated this way is absurd. This performance, in Maw’s 70th-birthday year, should have been at the Proms or in the Barbican. Where and how did we lose the confidence in our own composers?

Odyssey isn’t a work for every day, or even every year. I’ve now heard it live four times, the first complete performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1989, with this orchestra conducted by Richard Bernas, twice with Simon Rattle in 1999 as part of “Towards the Millennium”, and now in Maida Vale. Leonard Slatkin has championed the work in the US.

Andrew Litton directed an absorbing, impressive performance, obviously carefully prepared and thought through, and delivered with great commitment, drawing playing of concentrated weight and power from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Odyssey is divided into six sections, which can be seen as analogous to the movements of a conventional symphony if the first two sections are treated as one, and the last two likewise. The slow fourth section, lasting about one third of the total length, acts as a sort of central pivot balancing the sections either side of it, and at key points a time-chord, based on the chimes of the Maw family grandfather clock, sounds to mark significant changes.

Litton articulated the opening section with great clarity, setting the scene for the unfolding drama, the double basses in particular delivering their opening statement with trenchancy. As the time-chord chimed to usher in the second section, the tuned percussion briefly erupted and the cello section set out the ur-Melody, the 44-bar theme from which much of the work is derived, with exemplary clarity, so that the subsequent derivations, particularly in the fourth section, became much clearer. The passage for solo violin, which briefly intrudes as the first statement comes to an end, was played with considerable vigour by Anna Coleman. The third section Maw treats as an intermezzo, a lighter and more fleet-footed contrast, the woodwind solos, including some from unidentified guest players, handled with great dexterity.

After this contrast, the fourth section struck home with great force and feeling, the descending timpani scale, drawn from the ur-Melody, dominating the texture, and with violins reaching their most intense tone as the melodic lines arched and soared. Within the scope of this section there is yet a contrasting central passage, more agitated, which Litton marked with great urgency and the return of the main material based on the ur-Melody was marked with terrific intensity, dominated by six trumpets (occasionally though not tonight a suspect section of this orchestra) and eight horns, which at times seemed to overwhelm the close acoustic.

The transition to the fifth section allows the intense music to meld into more driving material, the strings responding with panache to the demanding writing, before brass aggressively join the texture and the music brutally lurches into the final section which repeatedly threatens an aggressive climax, without release, but the time-chord is recalled with great finality, which really did seem to threaten the microphones, and the final hard-won repose into an unambiguous E flat was achieved with a sense that this had been the destination all along.

It would be invidious to highlight any particular section, since the collective response of the BBCSO to Andrew Litton’s unflaggingly energetic direction was superb throughout, but the double bass section (well done for having ten players) were particularly focussed and achieved a concentrated and dark sound. All round, a triumph.

  • Odyssey is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 6.30 on 11 December 2005

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