Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards
Stargazer [World premiere]
Symphony No.4

Ian Bousfield (trombone)

Sally Matthews (soprano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 9 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The London Symphony Orchestra commissioned Jonathan Dove’s concerto Stargazer for their then Principal Trombone, Ian Bousfield. However, in 1999, midway through the work’s composition, Bousfield left the orchestra for the Vienna Philharmonic, postponing a first performance until now.

Historically, the trombone has often been cast as the clown; to post-war modernists like Luciano Berio and Vinko Globokar, the instrument’s unwieldy shape and almost vocal timbre suggested a sort of tragicomic aphasia. Dove has a more poetic metaphor in mind, that of “a man with a telescope … searching the night sky”, who explores a sequence of orchestral constellations.

Sadly, the piece is not especially stellar. Dove is a terrifically skilled composer, and his craftsmanship is evident in every bar; the soloist is given attractive lyrical passages, which Bousfield sent soaring into the hall with his impeccable, honeyed tone, interspersed with faster-paced passages. Dove also manages to avoid the empty technical virtuosity of too many brass concertos. However, the work’s musical territory was entirely derivative (of Holst, Reich and John Williams, among others), and it crucially lacked any animating spark of surprise.

More interesting by far was the performance of Steve Reich’s pivotal Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards. This is a rare foray for Reich into writing for orchestra, and its lush soundworld is not one he has revisited. However, Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO made a powerful case for the piece as a synthesis of minimalist techniques with large-scale tonal progression, conveying the weighty harmonic change under lucidly defined surface detail.

As though to compensate for Dove’s blandness, the account of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony brought a vividly-coloured carnival of grotesques, with tremendous solo playing from section principals and from guest leader Sarah Nemtanu, whose ‘Freund Hain’ fiddle solo in the second movement was pungent and uncomfortable listening. Tilson Thomas was concerned with the strangeness beneath the music’s surface; he lavished attention on the detail of the score with much tempo rubato, drawing the breaths between phrases in the slow movement out into uncomfortable silences. The culminating vision of Heaven made plain the disquieting undertones beneath Sally Matthews’s animated delivery.

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