The Broken Symphony

The Broken Symphony, Part 1: Endless Laments [BBC commission: world premiere]
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
The Broken Symphony, Part 2: Ghost Dances [BBC commission: world premiere]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61

Julia Fischer (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 23 May, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This unusual piece of programming offered the chance to hear two works central to the repertoire preceded by the world premiere of Scottish composer Alasdair Nicolson’s The Broken Symphony. Appropriately given its title, this was served as two courses, one at the concert’s opening and the other at the opening of its second half. Nicolson seems to specialise in catchy titles – previous works have included Cradle Song of the Disappeared, The Ballad of Bulbous Sniff, and Cat Man’s Tale. He also holds the distinction of having created an opera in Gaelic, “Sgathach”, surely a first.

According to the composer, The Broken Symphony was written with the intention that its two 10-minute movements be played either in two separate parts or as a joined whole and, in either situation, that the complete work should have a long-distance, arching form. Had it been played as a whole, one suspects though that its 20-minute span would have proved distinctly indigestible. Politically correct to the core, the BBC’s final commission of the season “engages with the harsh reality of world events, drawing on music and events of the West and Middle East” (to quote the programme note). ‘Endless Laments’, the symphony’s first movement, opens with a keening, mildly Gaelic-sounding piccolo over an ostinato bass and culminates via a string threnody in a burst of furious activity capped by a Honegger-like chorale. The second movement, ‘Ghost Dances’, reverses the arch and intersperses hyperactive strings with spectral bassoon, clarinet and horn solos (underpinned by omnipresent harps and a large Balinese-sounding percussion section) before subsiding exhausted into the opening piccolo. The performance under David Zinman’s confident direction was surely everything any composer could have wished.

For the rest, rarely is one treated to two such outstanding performances of core repertoire on a single programme (since the days of Rudolf Kempe the BBC Symphony Orchestra has hardly been noted for its prowess in Beethoven and Brahms) and much of the credit must go to Zinman whose unfussy, quietly authoritative conducting elicited a welcome level of commitment and finesse. The Brahms was distinctive on a number of counts. A little tentative in the opening measures, the first movement (minus repeat) soon worked up a fine head of steam. The two central movements, played more or less without a break, were noteworthy for the Andante’s swift tempo – strings and wind dovetailing beautifully – and for a lambent, unsentimental Allegretto graced by Martin Owen’s horn solo, deeply embedded in the texture. In many performances the finale’s closing paragraph can seem a letdown after its earlier storms. Here it seemed an entirely logical conclusion, at once cathartic and transfiguring, yet with tension fully sustained.

The Beethoven was even finer. Zinman opted for a much-reduced orchestra (only four double basses) and quick tempos in the outer movements, but as well as the expected transparency this was still Beethoven on the grandest scale, trenchantly accented. This chimed well with Julia Fischer’s approach, which is that of a natural chamber music player and very much primus inter pares. In the score Beethoven describes the soloist as “Violin principale” and that is precisely what this combination gave us, Fischer dominating effortlessly where needed but elsewhere ceding to the orchestra. Hers was also a quite unusually detailed and respectful account of the solo part. Time and time again one noticed her precision over note-values and dynamics, Beethoven’s dolce markings receiving special care. The cadenzas, Kreisler’s, were jaw-dropping in their controlled almost Dionysiac abandon. This was a life-enhancing and glorious performance, and by way of a raptly elevated encore, Fischer offered the Andante from Bach’s A minor solo Sonata.

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