Strip [BBC commission: world premiere]
Violin Concerto (to the memory of an angel)
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Joseph Swensen

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 25 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra was back at the Proms, not with Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis, who was unwell, but Joseph Swensen.

Morgan Hayes graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 1995, winning the Lutoslawski Prize for Composition. His first teacher, while at school, was Michael Finnissy, and then Robert Saxton and Simon Bainbridge. With grounding in European modernism, Hayes has, until now, written for smaller ensembles: Strip, completed this year to a BBC commission, is his first work for large orchestra.

Reviewers were provided with the score which alerted to the sloppy rhythms of the BBCSO: the score told how Strip should go. The piece lasts about 12 minutes creating musical “strips” vertically and horizontally by disassembling the orchestra into small sections leading to what the composer describes as “greater simplicity”. In fact most of the orchestra is playing most of the time, though not at precisely the same time – which is where the problems start. Rhythmically the piece is incredibly complex – almost every bar has a different time signature and, within the bars, polyrhythms compete, which has greater mathematical beauty than aural.

The scoring includes piano, harmonium and cimbalom. While the latter makes a worthwhile addition to the ensemble, the harmonium fulfils a harmonic role, doubling other instruments’ parts – almost as if the composer was unsure whether the harmony would be clouded by the general orchestral melee. Overall Strip doesn’t use the orchestral forces to full advantage; the coloration is confused and sounds like it looks – a product of a mathematical formula with little regard to the ultimate sound that is produced, although the circumstances of this first performance partly contributed to this feeling.

Written by the same lake in Carinthia where Brahms had written his Violin Concerto half-a-century earlier, Alban Berg’s was inspired by the early death of Manon Gropius (the ‘angel’), daughter of Alma Mahler.

The BBCSO appeared to be on more solid ground here, though it did take a while for conductor and soloist to agree which path to follow. It turned out to be a rather good performance; Kavakos broke a string toward the end, playing on guest leader Stephanie Gonley’s instrument.

The slow tempo at the opening of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony made the first chords, given their full length, sound overbearing and, had the tempo been a little faster, a more ‘classical’ join between the ‘sustained’ opening and the following Vivace would have been achievable. All repeats were observed, although the one in the first movement makes it lop-sided.

With Swensen’s unnecessary posturing and unhelpful cues the orchestra appeared to be conducting itself with Swensen merely an onlooker, although the scherzo got off to a rousing start and the tempo of the trio – ‘one in a bar’ – is exactly the way it should be played. There were some fine brassy sounds from the horn section and the fourth movement was at a good tempo – plenty of ‘brio’ as the composer requests.

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