Vexations and Devotions

Vexations and Devotions [BBC co-commission: European premiere]
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Gondwana Voices
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 22 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Even with the expert David Robertson in charge, last Tuesday’s Prom found the BBC Symphony Orchestra biting off more than it could chew with an over-ambitious programme of complex new music and under-performed 20th-century classics. This concert, by contrast, proved eminently workable: a broadly accessible European première in the first half and a familiar masterpiece in part two.

Still, one wonders how much rehearsal time was left for the Beethoven. The odd fluff apart, Robertson’s bright-eyed, clean-cut approach worked well. With violins antiphonally placed and long, on occasion slightly streamlined phrasing, the music-making might have had an old-fashioned feel but for its no-nonsense pacing, full quota of repeats and calculated avoidance of rhetoric. The latter applied both within and between movements: there were no agogic emphases and only one break in an otherwise non-stop performance separated movements two and three. The ‘slow’ movement emerged as a real Allegretto and the finale largely retained rhythmic focus even at whirlwind speeds. There was no slowing down at phrase ends to detract from the general air of purposeful, efficient continuity. With the hall 60 per cent full, the sound from my seat had unaccustomed lucidity. The lighting designer’s pink and turquoise dappling will no doubt have seemed less incongruous to those watching at home.

A more militant red-orange glow suffused Brett Dean’s three-movement protest-piece, a big-scale expression of familiar ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ sentiments. As in “Critical Mass”, the collaboration between The Shout and Streetwise Opera now running at the Almeida, one section contrasts the banality of corporate jargon with the thwarted potential of individual self- expression. Others lament the de-humanising effects of reality TV and the particular awfulness of automated telephone answering systems. The targets aren’t new but Dean approaches them with aural imagination, handling huge resources with the practised ease of a performing musician who spent 15 years in the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic. The mix includes electronics, urban murmuring, forced laughter and adjacently tuned mouth organs, while the more conventional instrumental textures are unfailingly imaginative, a sceptical, whirring, teeming, grunting variant on the Adams-influenced lingua franca.In so far as one could tell, the rendition was expert and enthusiastic. Visiting ranks of Antipodean kids sported distinctive ochre discs, sung superbly and at one point were instructed to rustle pieces of ‘Bacofoil’. While Dean’s dramatic purposes may be impenetrable at times, this grand ‘sociological cantata’ has confirmed him as a composer to watch.

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