Fifth Concerto for Orchestra [BBC commission: world premiere]
Four Last Songs
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.77
Hillevi Martinpelto (soprano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 4 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Never a composer known for half-measures, Robin Holloway has written a number of large-scale symphonic works over the course of his career though, apart from a solitary Symphony (premiered at the Proms eleven years ago), these have taken the form of Concertos for Orchestra that define his output at crucial junctures.
Not least the Fifth (2009) which, though on an appreciably smaller scale than its 90-minute predecessor (still awaiting a complete performance), is perhaps the nearest he has come to reflecting the ‘showpiece’ connotations most often associated with this genre. Holloway has spoken of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces as its indirect precursor, although in fact the range of late-Romantic and early-Modernist influences often evident in his music is brought into play – albeit from an often oblique perspective. Thus the opening movement contrasts its sombrely amorphous outer sections with a lighter and wistful ‘trio’, while the second emerges as a scherzo of rapid contrasts – not least its own ‘trio’ in which percussion and brass are ominously to the fore. What seems to have been a last-minute change to the intended ordering saw the fourth and fifth movements brought forward, with the former essentially a statically evocative introduction to the latter’s calmly unfolding polyphony in what constitutes the slow movement. It might also have made a ruminative finale to the whole, but Holloway is right to have moved the erstwhile third movement to that position – so that its vivid interplay of ideas rounds off the work to scintillating as well as uninhibited effect. This is music that calls for a high degree (resourcefully deployed, as always with this composer) of virtuosity, which it duly received from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Donald Runnicles (who also presided over that first performance of the Symphony) – one as alive to the music’s swift flights of fancy as to its more inward qualities. Holloway has noted the importance of colour in the conceiving of each movement, but these seemed less evident than the translucent follow-through of timbres and textures over and between these movements. Suffice to say that 26 minutes passed quickly and pleasurably in the course of a piece deserving wide exposure.
Whether or not intended as such, the rest of the programme might have been designed to throw Holloway’s thinking into greater relief. Certainly Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (1948) is the epitome of that post-Romantic aesthetic that Holloway has dwelt on intensively and made an instructive complement to his own work. While Hillevi Martinpelto had the range and depth of tone to do justice to this music, her rendition of ‘Frühling’ was spoiled by unsteadiness of vibrato and while the other songs were less affected, this could not be ranked among the more successful accounts of a work hardly lacking performances. What made it worthwhile was Runnicles’s direction – maintaining a liquid fluency throughout ‘September’ then ensuring the sentiment of ‘Beim Schlafengehen’ never became cloying, before ‘In Abendrot’ emerged as a decrescendo from fervent emotion to calm transcendence. As accompaniment per se, it could scarcely have been bettered. Just a shame that some in the audience were not able to respect the intended closing silence before applauding.
Much of the performance of Brahms’s Second Symphony (1877) proved equally successful. Thus the deceptively passive first movement was kept on a tight but never inflexible rein, making the exposition repeat less of an indulgence than usual and bringing out the anxiety of the development as well as the equivocation of the coda. Ambivalence also lies at the heart of the slow movement, and Runnicles drew playing of clarity and refinement from the BBCSSO in music whose often-sombre textures can easily congeal. The ensuing intermezzo was a model of deftness and poise – its scherzando sections delectably pointed, and if the finale brought a fleeting sense of disappointment, its refusal to indulge in overt rhetoric was all of a piece with what had gone before. The proto-Mahlerian descent into the reprise was finely delineated, while the coda maintained a rumbustious vigour without overkill. A fine account.