A New Concerto from Bringuier and the BBCSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Dvorak, Saunders, Tchaikovsky: Carolin Widmann (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Barbican, London, 10.2.2012 (GDn)

Dvorak: Carnival Overture
Rebecca Saunders: Still (UK première)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5 in E minor

The odds were stacked against Rebecca Saunders’ Violin Concerto. She is a radical avantgardist, and traditional genres like the concerto are not her thing. Her music rarely has a sense of linear progression, let alone melody, she doesn’t write virtuoso solo parts, and she has little experience of writing for symphony orchestra. The BBC and the Beethovenfest Bonn therefore took a brave step in commissioning the work.

Unsurprisingly, the word ‘concerto’ does not appear in the name of the finished piece, which instead goes by Still, a convoluted reference from Samuel Beckett. And despite the inauspicious nature of the commission, Saunders has played to her strengths, particularly her preoccupation with tone colour. The work was written for violinist Carolin Widmann, who has a complex and strident tone, not pretty as such, but focussed, incisive and always interesting. These qualities in Widmann’s playing were clearly the seeds for the inspiration that led to this concerto. Saunders’ solo part is ideal for Widmann. It has lots of abrasive, punchy sonorities, but also exploits the wide range of colours that Widmann is able to produce.

The orchestra’s role is essentially reactive, in that all the musical ideas begin on the violin before being expanded by the ensemble. Klangfarbenmelodie is the basis of this approach, with individual pitches transferred from violin to orchestra, and then around the individual sections. But that’s only the start, and Saunders extends the idea into timbral motifs which are developed and expanded as they move around the players. Her brass writing owes much to Varèse although, unlike him, she often begins dense chords quietly, especially when they have just come from the violin, before crescendoing to brutal climaxes. The percussion section has a very important part to play, and is similar in size and prominence to the woodwinds or the brass. The sound of antiphonal truck suspension springs was one of the many that I heard for the first time from them this evening. And one other inspired piece of orchestration to mention – the button accordion. This appears in many of Saunders’ works, but its role in these orchestral textures is particularly striking. When the accordion holds a high pianissimo cluster after the end of an orchestral tutti, it is as if live electronic sound manipulation is being used. It’s a surprisingly innovative effect from a thoroughly traditional instrument.

The Concerto was framed by two 19th century audience pleasers, which was a curious and unhelpful context for it, but never mind. Lionel Bringuier is one of the many young conductors on the international circuit, and at 25 he’s younger than most. Like many conductors in his age bracket, Bringuier’s strength is the excitement and energy he brings to familiar works. Dvorak’s Carnival Overture benefited more than Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony from this youthful exuberance. It was an excellent concert opener, and the energy in the outer sections was close to ideal. The string sound was a little brittle, and the transitions to and from the quiet central section were awkward, but otherwise this was an excellent performance.

The Tchaikovsky, though, needs more subtly, and it didn’t get it. Bringuier seemed to be trying to channel the spirit of Evgeny Mravinsky, to recreate those searing textures and continual surprises that made the great man’s performances of the Fifth so special. But Bringuier is not Mravinsky and the BBC SO, though a fine orchestra, is not the Leningrad Philharmonic. The louder music (all of which was very loud) fared better than the quieter sections. The reflective clarinet solo at the opening, for example, was just drab, as was most of the second movement.

The orchestra, to its credit, maintained both its tone quality and its balance in the superloud tuttis that Bringuier drew from them. It is great to hear the trombones playing as loud as they are capable of for a change, and the rest of the orchestra playing up to their dynamic rather than the other way round.

Bringuier’s approach finally bore fruit in the last movement. Here he did approach the splendour and vigour of Mravinsky’s high-octane performances. Tempos throughout the symphony had been on the fast side, and often excessively rigid too, but at the end of the last movement, that finally seemed like a virtue. The passage that leads up to the false ending about five minutes before the end really worked. Bringuier’s interpretation up to here had seemed brash and unfeeling, but in these last few minutes, where the composer is battling the dark forces of fate, nothing else would have fitted the bill.

Gavin Dixon

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available until Thursday 16 February at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01bmp5z