Reflections on Narcissus

Un sourire
Reflections on Narcissus [UK premiere]
Shéhérazade – Ouverture de féerie
The Firebird [1945 Suite]

Truls Mørk (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Matthias Pintscher

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Whether or not composer-conductors are born or have their conducting thrust upon them, Matthias Pintscher would seem to have much to offer. Having established himself in Western Europe as among the leading composers of his generation, the 35-year-old has embarked on what ought to be a notableconducting career.

Pintscher’s first engagement with the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave evidence of a keen organising intelligence, and responsiveness to qualities of timbre and sonority, that the orchestra has displayed in its work with Pierre Boulez and Oliver Knussen – like both of whom, Pintscher’s conducting of his own music brings a cohesion and inevitability to music that in other hands risks seeming abstruse.

A ‘cello concerto’ in all but name, Reflections on Narcissus (2005) packs a great deal of incident into its 37 minutes. Playing continuously, the five ‘reflections’ outline a distinct but imaginatively-handled arch form: whereby a fragmentary and fugitive opening section gives rise to a fast and aggressive confrontation between soloist and orchestra; itself proceeded by an extensive and intricate sequence of recitative-like exchanges for the two – after which, a further and even more explosive encounter sees the soloist silenced by an orchestral tirade, before the valedictory final section brings less a reconciliation than a sublimation of expressive means towards the tranquil yet sombre conclusion.

How this relates to the Greek legend of Narcissus is left (as, indeed it should be) for the listener to decide, but the formal and emotional trajectory that Pintscher sets up is very largely sustained by the music itself – especially when rendered with the unassuming authority that Truls Mørk brought to the solo part and the attention to detail, without sacrificing overall momentum, that the composer brought to the performance. Henze and Lachenmann have both been mentioned in connection with Pintscher’s musical aesthetic, but Dutilleux – specifically his own cello concerto – would seem an even more potent presence behind the thinking of this assured and thoughtful contribution to the medium.

The remainder of the concert featured early and late music by composers with whom Pintscher has a stated affinity. A touching tribute to Mozart in the bicentennial of his death, Messiaen’s Un Sourire (1991) was an appropriate revival – though the serene string sections were a shade deadpan, and the alternating episodes for wind and percussion could have been more precisely articulated; for all that the piece reached its radiant culmination with the right effortlessness. Coming at the opposite end of his career, Ravel’s ‘fairy-tale overture’ Shéhérazade (1898) was treated to a rare performance. Intended as the overture to an opera that was seemingly never even begun, it finds the composer grappling not entirely successfully with sonata-form precepts in what is more a tone poem in the tradition of Liszt and Balakirev – colourfully if occasionally garishly scored by the standards of his maturity, but whose innately attractive themes are sufficient reason for its revival, especially when given with the sensitivity that Pintscher secured in this controlled yet never unspontaneous account.

A pity such epithets could not be applied to that of the 1945 Suite from The Firebird which ended the concert. This has the misfortune of offering all the ballet’s highlights in an expertly-arranged sequence whose orchestration yet drains most of the colour and immediacy from the original music. Pintscher seemed undecided how best to tackle the whole: the ‘Introduction’ distilled a keen mystery, while the ‘Berceuse’ had a tellingly ominous repose; against this, the ‘Supplication of the Firebird’ was enervated to the point of tedium, and ‘Dance of the Princesses’ had a rhythmic inflexibility not wholly the fault of Stravinsky’s revision. Nor did the ‘Infernal Dance’ avoid such rigidity, for all Pintscher’s bringing out of internal detail, while the ‘Final Hymn’ was leaden in pacing and climaxed prematurely.

Not a performance, then, to remember with much pleasure, and a pity that it was the last item in a concert which earlier had much to recommend it. Clearly Pintscher is a conductor who can galvanise musicians: whether this persuasiveness extends beyond his own music to encompass what amounts to a ‘repertoire’ remains to be seen. Assuming, for the moment, that it will, the BBC Symphony Orchestra could certainly do far worse should they be looking for a replacement for John Adams as its Artist-in-Association.

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