The UK Première of The Last Days of Socrates 

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Brett Dean: Sir John Tomlinson (bass), Robert Johnston (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/John Storgårds (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 13.2.2015. (JPr)

Beethoven – Symphony No 8 in F major
Brett Dean The Last Days of Socrates (2012) (UK première)

Beethoven’s Symphony No 8 is regarded as the most light-hearted of all his symphonies and shows none of the turmoil in Beethoven’s life at the time when it was composed in 1812. He was coming to terms with the fact that he had become increasingly deaf and there was an issue with his brother, Johann, and the woman he was later to marry. However some of the symphony’s inspiration seems to have come from Beethoven’s own infatuation with a woman who, apparently, has never been properly identified. It is one of the composer’s shortest symphonies and is believed to be chock-full of jokes for both the listener and performer.

 I increasingly wonder whether anybody at the BBC actually reads the programme notes before they are printed. I hope Barry Cooper – a professor at the University of Manchester who has probably forgotten more about music than I have ever known – didn’t actually mean to say that the Eighth Symphony is ‘a work full of humour and subtle wit that can be appreciated best by connoisseurs.’ I’m not a connoisseur and I suspect only a minority of the listeners scattered around the Barbican Hall would regard themselves as such. Apparently musical ‘jokes’ include how ‘After a only a few bars, the first movement turns in completely the wrong direction, from F towards E flat major before a couple of toots from a solo bassoon land the music in the improbable key of D major. This type of humour persists throughout the movement and is even more prominent in the second.’ A scientific explanation for verbal humour has defeated many of the best intellects over the centuries and I am not certain Professor Cooper truly explained the ‘ingenuity and wit’ in this work … and I doubt anyone actually could as it depends on the perception of the listener … connoisseur or otherwise!

John Storgårds, principal guest conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, chose brisk tempi and succeeded in showing the character of the piece as essentially genial. However, I occasionally detected something possibly darker – especially in the middle two movements with what Professor Cooper calls their ‘ticking effect’ – and my mind drifted to the eerily fantastical world of Der Freischütz by Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Maria von Weber. Maestro Storgårds drove the symphony on relentlessly and despite using relatively large forces it all seemed to be in perfect musical harmony with nothing too soft or too loud. The BBC Symphony Orchestra supported his interpretation admirably by playing with palpable enthusiasm and virtuosity.

I deliberately mention ‘soft’ and ‘loud’ for the Beethoven because printed in London’s Evening Standard the same evening as this concert was an editorial by Barry Millington about how Sir Simon Rattle’s proposed acceptance of the job of the next principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra might be dependent on the prospect of a new state-of-the-art concert hall in the capital. Millington explains the problem with the Barbican and how ‘because it has neither the bloom or immediacy of great halls … Much depends on who’s on the podium, but even the greatest conductors struggle to achieve that blend of clarity and amplitude of tone that makes for the ideal concert experience.’ After the interval was the work that drew me to this concert – Brett Dean’s The Last Days of Socrates, an oratorio at nearly one hour in length that was written for legendary bass, Sir John Tomlinson. However my heart sank when I saw the five percussionists and timpanist – surrounded by their full complement of almost every instrument that it was possible to hit and get a sound from – arrayed at the back at the back of the huge orchestra in front of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Does all newly commissioned music get extra funding from the percussionists’ union if it uses everything it is possible to use? I am sure it will have sounded exciting in the live BBC Radio 3 broadcast but when the orchestra and chorus were at full volume it was just a wall of noise by the time it got to me at the back of the stalls.

Brett Dean suggests his is a ‘story which is hovering whenever we witness the attempt of free-thinking opposition to state control.’ Socrates was sentenced to death in 399BC for, as explained in Graeme William Ellis’s libretto, ‘corrupting the minds of our children and believing in gods of your own invention!’ He stuck steadfastly to his principles and accepted his sentence of drinking hemlock as his apparent duty to the people of Athens to assert the right of the individual. By questioning the meaning of death as he lay dying, he lived up to his ideals right to the end.

Dean, is a former viola-player with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra who gave the world première of the work under Rattle, and his soundworld employs every other orchestral instrument, it appears, as well as all that percussion. Here an electric guitar, accordion, piano and celesta and some players higher in the hall were thrown into the mix of extra-musical imagery and the result was all rather bleak and uncompromising. The first part ‘Prelude’ is a hymn to the Goddess Athena. The second is the trial, based on Plato’s The Apology and the third, taken from Plato’s Phaedo, is when Socrates drinks the poison and embraces his death because for him life has just been a rehearsal. It is a work full of contrasts, the opening is almost inaudible as if we are lost in the mists of time to the high-octane start to the second part … which was occasionally inaudible for reasons hinted at elsewhere in this review. Nevertheless, both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were at their most committed under John Storgårds’ intensely energetic conducting.

 The final part ‘Phaedo’ was undoubtedly the best – mainly because it was the quietest – starting with a plaintive cello cadenza, beautifully articulated by Graham Bradshaw, which possibly represents the image of a swan that features strongly in these last moments. It is quite literally a ‘swan song’ for the philosopher’s soul as Socrates recounts to his grieving followers how ‘when, after many a summer, the swan dies it sings more sweetly than it sang in a lifetime.’ Here Sir John Tomlinson, who not only sang – but occasionally spoke lines such as ‘Therefore I do not regard my end as misfortune’ – proved he was ideal for Socrates. His authoritative stage manner and clear diction brought a certain emotional resonance to Socrates’ meditation on how death is not an ending but a beginning. Unfortunately on this occasion his stentorian bass voice had been slow to gain true focus but when it did it there was hope that he can still be heard for a few more years before he leaves the stage. Indeed, when he was at his best near the end Tomlinson was – as Dean has said – ‘ideally suited to the portrayal of our version of Socrates, by turns curmudgeonly, argumentative and lyrically reflective’.

 Jim Pritchard

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