Rachmaninov in Retrospect – BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra (6 November)

All Night Vigil (Vespers)

Judith Harris (mezzo-soprano)
Robert Johnston (tenor)
BBC Singers
Stephen Layton

St Giles’s Church, Cripplegate (Barbican) [Singers at 6]

A Sudden Rainbow
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K 467
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Stephen Hough (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Barbican Hall, London

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 6 November, 2003
Venue: St Giles’s Cripplegate & Barbican Hall, London

Leonard Slatkin prefaced a short tour to Athens, where he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra did two concerts, with this single event at the Barbican Hall. While audiences at home missed out on Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony (a great favourite of mine), we did get a typically suave account of Mozart’s “Elvira Madigan” concerto (the programme note hardly mentioning the Swedish art film connection, probably rightly so, given that Mozart’s work can surely claim to have received the most belated nickname in the history of music, nearly 200 years after composition!), and a full-blooded account of Rachmaninov’s longest orchestral work, the mighty Second Symphony.

Stephen Hough played Mozart’s A major concerto (K488) at the 2002 Proms, and astounded everybody with a modernist cadenza, which Richard Whitehouse described in his review for this site thus: “its close-interval harmonies and ’blue’ chords, segueing a little too abruptly with the orchestra was diverting, though Chick Corea and Mozart is less of a match made in heaven than might be supposed”. If the well-filled audience (the stalls almost completely full, the rest of the hall ’dark’) was expecting something similar in the buoyant outer movements of the C major concerto, they were disappointed; Hough’s self-penned cadenzas for K467 are models of musical dexterity, completely in keeping with the mood, harmony and rhythm of Mozart’s conception.

I liked Slatkin’s sensitive support, baton-less in the slow movement, not too sweet, allowing Hough to rise effortlessly above the orchestral palette, and the reception was warm and generous, especially for the dapper soloist – for once in the curtain calls without the white towel that seemed a mite over indulgent as a brow-mopper!

It was a towel that the audience might have welcomed in Slatkin’s conception of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, an obvious favourite of his, moulded without a score perhaps with too much willingness to succumb to rubato. But the BBC Symphony Orchestra, currently playing very well for its outgoing (a shame!) Chief Conductor, moved to his every whim and we were given a larger-than-life rendition of the full score, which sometimes became louder than perhaps palatable with the configuration of the Barbican Hall’s baffle boards seemingly thrusting the sound out better than ever.

In comparison the rhythmical and instrumental exigencies of Joseph Schwantner’s A Sudden Rainbow, all perfectly acceptable and easily assimilated, were left, like their titular inspiration, somewhat without form. It was a case of the past quite clearly showing the vacuity of the present. I’m not complaining of Slatkin’s championing Schwantner (this piece is dedicated to him, and his then orchestra, the St Louis Symphony, way back in 1986), but just suggesting that Mozart and Rachmaninov in this programme delivered the goods in a far more meaningful and lasting way.

Earlier in the evening, in an ongoing series of pre-concert concerts, wittily entitled “Singers at Six”, St Giles’s resounded to Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil, the BBC Singers conducted by Stephen Layton. A world away from the opulence of his earlier Second Symphony, this can be seen as a farewell to Russia (Rachmaninov would escape the Revolution two years later), and suits his particular brand of nostalgia perfectly.

While perhaps missing the distinctive depths of Russian basses, the BBC Singers under Layton gave a moving performance, very atmospheric in the warm acoustic (and ambience) of St Giles, with nice solos by mezzo Judith Harris and tenor Robert Johnston early on. A break after the ninth section was regrettable, but did not detract too much from the reflective mood instilled by the performance.

The main concert was broadcast live, with the All Night Vespers recorded for deferred broadcast later that evening. The next live outing, back from Athens, for Slatkin and the BBC Symphony, and with the BBC Singers, is the performance of Barber’s Vanessa on Saturday 15 November in the Barbican Hall.

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