Vox Clamantis

Vox clamantis – symphonic movement for three trumpets and orchestra
Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.5 in F, Op.76

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 26 March, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Conflict’, in various senses, was at the heart of this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert.

In the case of Petr Eben’s Vox clamantis (1969) it was the trauma of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (and the suppression of “Prague Spring” liberalism) that was the inspiration behind this ‘symphonic movement’ which – despite the presence of controlled aleatoric elements that Polish composers such as Lutosławski were then exploring – follows in the lineage of Janáček and Martinů. The former is evident in the placing of the three trumpets (Gareth Bimson, Martin Hurrell and David Hilton) ‘above’ the orchestra so that their timbre cuts through at climaxes, while the latter is discernible through the way melodic elements – from Czech, Gregorian and Hebrew sources – are layered across the texture and come to the fore at moments of greatest emotional tension. Only the extraneous presence of a speaker (on tape) twice reciting the words of John the Baptist strikes a slightly passé note in what is otherwise a convincingly shaped and also powerfully felt response to troubled times. Vividly projected in this performance, it made one regret that orchestral music is not more prominent within Eben’s output.

Conflict in Brahms’s First Piano Concerto – his veritable ‘rite of passage’ as a composer – is normally apparent in the combative relationship between soloist and orchestra. Cédric Tiberghien adopted a rather different strategy, such that the work became a ‘sinfonia concertante’ on the largest scale. This at times lessened the elemental power of the opening movement (after a finely characterised opening tutti, the initial exchanges were distinctly temperate), but the gains in overall integration were more than compensation. Tiberghien’s poetic (but never flaccid) introspection was ideally suited to the rapt intensity of the Adagio – with Bělohlávek offering an object-lesson in nuanced accompaniment – while the finale were rendered so that the hard-won affirmation of its closing pages was never in doubt. It helped that such passages as the strings’ hushed fugato were cleanly dispatched, and that Tiberghien integrated the cadenza so thoroughly into the larger structure.

A calm and limpid rendering of Bach’s Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’, heard in Busoni’s transcription, made an ideal encore.

Conflict might not be thought a factor in Dvořák’s Fifth Symphony, but this piece from just before his breakthrough as a composer has an expressive range and grasp of long-range tonal possibilities that is surpassed only by the Seventh Symphony, and a melodic felicitousness equalled only by the Eighth. Conducting from memory, Bělohlávek demonstrated what a ‘hidden gem’ in Dvořák’s output it has become. The moderately-paced opening movement (exposition repeat taken) had the right sense of easeful repose threatened by darker elements that is offset in the central movements before their overt confrontation in the finale. Bělohlávek did not overdo the pathos in the Mendelssohnian Andante and brought an appealing lilt to the scherzo (its trio deftly inflected), then gave the finale its all. As formally complex a movement as Dvořák wrote, its intricacies were handled so the blazing coda was made the outcome of a conflict extending across the work as a whole.

With the BBC Symphony Orchestra in fine form, this performance may well have been Bělohlávek’s finest achievement with the orchestra so far.

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