Wing on Wing [UK premiere]
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Anu & Piia Komsi (sopranos)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 12 May, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This Barbican concert marked Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s return to the BBC Symphony Orchestra since he stepped down as principal guest conductor at last year’s Proms. At that concert he conducted a searing account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11 (The Year 1905), swivelling round at the end almost in defiance to glare at the audience as if to make sure we had appreciated it fully.
Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony, while growing to the force with which the Eleventh Symphony ends, needs no such visual statement, as the music ebbs away into silence. Up to that final point, Saraste showed, once again, not only how well he paces Shostakovich, but also how well the BBC Symphony Orchestra musicians respond to him. Apart from an occasional (but no less annoying for that, especially as its swansong occurred in the pianissimo coda) catarrhitic cough, Sarasate kept the audience in rapt awe, sometimes pinned seats in the loudest passages, at others collectively leaning forward, conspiratorially, as the music dissipated into bare instrumental lines, especially Celia Craig’s lithe cor anglais solo.
This great ‘war’ symphony leaped from the page in all its emotional and musical moods yet Saraste is surely right in allowing the music to speak without over-egging the emotional pull that often appeals to other conductors. The climaxes were shattering enough without manipulating them further. As the first movement built inexorably to its brass paean, I wondered not for the first time why no-one else (Gerard McBurney’s programme note included) seems to recognise the quote from Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony at that very point, in the trumpets’ stepped descent. The quote is repeated twice – again towards the end of the first movement and then in the finale. Surely Shostakovich used it on purpose, but I’ve never seen any mention in any literature.
The first half had included Saraste’s fellow-Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Wing on Wing, which was written in 2004 for the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Walt Disney Concert Hall; Salonen had been inspired by designer Frank Gehry’s sail-like designs. Using recorded phrases spoken by Gehry, contributions from delightful-sounding fish (the plainfin midshipman) always singing in E (!) and two siren-like sopranos, Salonen creates an extraordinary wash of sound (not overly avant-garde, but certainly unusual in a Messiaenic kind of way) that weaves its magical musical spell for over 20 minutes.
At first the Komsi sisters were paired front of stage, one with contrabass clarinet, the other with double bassoon sitting in front of first violins and cellos respectively. Later the singers stood at the extremes of the Barbican’s first tier before again appearing on the platform. Finally they ended up in the highest reaches of the Barbican’s second tier, as if their undulating vocalise is lost on the Pacific breeze. As Heather Harper suggested to me in the interval, it would be remarkable in the Royal Albert Hall. Although the Barbican, as a space, is rather too conventional for such theatrical elements, the musical enchantment of Salonen’s piece was never in doubt.