St Jude’s Proms – Keith Burstein Premiere

The Splendour of Light [World premiere]
Symphony No.36 in C, K425 (Linz)
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Martin Jones (piano)

Southbank Sinfonia
Simon Over

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 17 June, 2006
Venue: St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

Southbank Sinfonia comprises exceptional young music graduates, awarded an eight-month bursary to gain intensive performing experience prior to gaining a first permanent post. Simon Over has been Director of Southbank Sinfonia since 2002.

Keith Burstein is known for a requiem for victims of the ‘Marchioness’ boat disaster, a meditation on the Holocaust and an opera concerning would-be suicide bombers. His work, he declares, is deliberately tonal and concerned to present emotions that “only music can express”.

Southbank Sinfonia commissioned The Splendour of Light last year, asking for a concerto for orchestra. The work opens spaciously, evoking the view down the Thames from Waterloo Bridge to Canary Wharf. The writing is rich and sonorous, mindful, indeed, of the various sections of the orchestra. The music contrasts large, continuing flows of sound, mainly from the upper strings and woodwinds, with a multiplicity of short blocks containing “rarely fewer than five layers of polyphony”. Structurally, Burstein sees this as “a work in which things collide”. The Sinfonia played all this with rich commitment. For me, however, the dulcet harmonies and fragments of melody implied that Walton’s First Symphony had yet to be written.

I found the ‘Linz’ a bit of a problem – whether a small-force symphony redolent of the drawing room or of the opera house. Restrained elegance and emotional flurry sat oddly side by side. Furthermore, there was the question of balance. When played with gusto or emphasis, the lower strings and the brass produced a clouded sound, a loud haze. Too often, I could only hear the ground bass tramping stolidly, rendering the violins inaudible. Maybe it was the acoustic, but whenever the lower strings played lightly and elegantly, the violins were perfectly audible.

I have no such reservations about the playing of Brahms’s concerto. Right from the first bars, with the steady horn call, echoed obediently by the piano, this was an inviting performance. The sonority was right – rich but not too heavy. The pace was right, too – leisurely, but with progress, indicating that reserves of energy would be freed later.

Martin Jones gave a sterling performance of the difficult solo part. He responded to the variations in tempo and tone with practised accomplishment, displaying barnstorming virtuosity and brief tenderness. He was stern in the second movement, serene in the third and delightfully skittish in the fourth. That said, his performance gained immeasurably from the Sinfonia’s partnering, its musicians capturing the slightest nuance, responding lightly and easily to the slightest change in beat and tempo, to Brahms’s sun, his clouds and his lilt. The balance between instruments was exemplary.

This mellow, vigorous performance had great splendour. It deserved to be the envy of more seasoned players. Spectacular, too, was Sam Sherwood. His third movement cello aria had an unrivalled, intensity. In great daring, he played powerfully on the knife-edge between sweetness and sentimentality – and never erred.

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