No Crowd-Pleasers from the BBC Phil at Salford Quays

07/06/2019

Shostakovich, Prokofiev: Aleksey ‎ ‎Semenenko (violin), BBC Philharmonic / Jac ‎van Steen (conductor). BBC Philharmonic Studio, MediaCityUK, Salford Quays, 5.6.2019. (RBa)

Piers Hellawell Wild ‎Flow

Dmitri Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No.2 in C sharp minor

Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No.6 in E flat minor

The first two items in this BBC Phil concert were broadcast live on Radio 3. The orchestra was presided over by Dutch conductor Jac ‎van Steen, who is practised hand when it comes to repertoire from deep left field.

The programme began with Piers Hellawell’s 20-minute Wild ‎Flow. The composer was in the MediaCity Hall to witness the event. Wild ‎Flow is a BBC-commissioned work in five movements. It was premiered ‎at the Royal Albert Hall on 21 August 2016 by Rafael Payare and the Ulster Orchestra. The music is dedicated to ‘the Ulster Orchestra and its champions’.

Second and later performances are to be treasured. Wild ‎Flow consists of five pieces whose grounded hub is a long slowish movement. Around that earthing element, four predominantly energetic sections flail and flitter. As a whole, the composer says that he was aiming at ‘a discourse of abrupt contrasts of expression’. Van Steen directed the large orchestra which had a centrally placed harp. He did this minus baton and with detailed and expressive shoulder, arm and hand movements. He is a clear, demonstrative and very active communicator, without the eccentricities of Bernstein yet more emotive and far less impassive than Boult.

Hellawell’s music has something of the sound of the late Oliver Knussen’s work about it. I am thinking of The Way to Castle Yonder. There are also echoes in its tirelessly motile kaleidoscope of pointillist cells of the later symphonies of Egon Wellesz and of Arnold’s Symphonies 7 and 9. The cells tend to be small, and they are arranged discontinuously. Long lines are generally absent, except once in the central movement where the progress of the score echoed Valentin Silvestrov’s Fifth Symphony. Confounding my references to other composers, the sound of this music is quite distinctive with bluesy moans and super-quiet shrieks from the Leader Yuri Torchinsky’s violin. Mr. Hellawell came forward at the close to recognise the ebullient applause.

Then came two Soviet works. Shostakovich’s three-movement Violin Concerto No.2 was written late in his life; it was his last concerto. It dates from 1967, and it was a 60th birthday gift for its dedicatee, David Oistrakh. In the hands and munificently stocked imagination of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Aleksey ‎Semenenko, this complex piece basked in attention of all the musicians. Semenenko, playing with the reassurance of a score in front of him, gave the music with micrometer attention to its disaffected and at times disconsolate drama. The warmth and volume of the applause was substantial, and we can hope to hear more from this very fine musician. This is a overwhelmingly austere and desperately serious work that contrasts with the same composer’s First Violin Concerto. Van Steen, at times beaming with pleasure, conducted with baton, as he did also for the Prokofiev.

After getting on for a quarter-hour pause following the exultantly received Shostakovich and specifically of Semenenko’s unshakeable mastery, the Prokofiev Symphony No.6 marched in. It is in three gritty and dogged movements across forty minutes. It dates from 1947 and survived State opprobrium in 1948 to emerge as one of the composer’s finest and most integrated works. Like the Shostakovich Concerto, it is wagged by an internal galvanic drive that overall does not pander to the garish ambience of fairs and circuses or instant crowd-pleasing. That stalking opening from the brass exercised a remorseless vice-tight grip. Van Steen caught the excoriating ambivalence of the music: its satire, its remorselessness, its drive, its valour.  Unlike the Fifth Symphony, which is more popular and gets more play and concert time, the Sixth is grim despite isolated episodes of luxuriating strings to contrast with pages that seem to evoke a world rent apart. These briefly but voluptuously recall the more romantic moments in the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The audience stayed on for two detailed ‘patching’ sessions to address stray moments in the first movement. No doubt the performance will be broadcast in one of Radio 3’s afternoon concerts.

The composer said of the Sixth Symphony: ‘Now we are rejoicing in our great victory, but each of us has wounds that cannot be healed. One has lost those dear to him, another has lost his health. These must not be forgotten.’ These are an echo, across the decades and continents, of this month’s D-Day events.

I should mention that the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony will be performed by the BBCPO and Ludovic Morlot at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 28 November 2019.

Rob Barnett

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