An Abundantly Stimulating BBC Symphony Orchestra Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Schnittke, Shostakovich: Lawrence Power (viola); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Vedernikov (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 30.1.2016. (CC)

Haydn, Symphony No. 103 in E flat, “Drumroll”

Schnittke, Viola Concerto (1985)

Shostakovich, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54

As the concerts side of 2016 gets into its stride and Christmas becomes a cosy memory, this BBC Symphony concert reminded us of the importance of imaginative programming. The programme was lop-sided, certainly – a first half of 75 minutes and a second half of just 30 minutes – but it was abundantly stimulating nonetheless.

Haydn’s “Drum-Roll” Symphony acted as an extended “overture” to what might on first blush be taken as an overture-concerto-symphony programme (albeit one seen through a distorting fairground mirror). This was a superb performance, dramatic from the off (did Haydn write fffff for the drum-roll?). The reduced orchestra – six cellos and three double-basses in the lower segment – enabled textures to achieve full transparency, and it was clear that much care had gone into the preparation. The second subject, bucolic and dancing, contrasted well with later dramatic accents. The gentle slow movement also led in contrasts (the bright martial element); the solo violin of Stephanie Gonley was a real highlight here also. If the stomping beat of the third movement both invoked images of peasant celebration and provided a sturdy frame for the gentle Trio, the finale offered blazes of light.

While the material of Schnittke’s Viola Concerto might have been shaped by a musical cipher of the name of its dedicatee, Yuri Bashmet, tonight’s soloist Lawrence Power showed himself to be a major player. The work’s Largo-Allegro molto-Largo structure reflects the work’s dark demeanour. The onstage layout was significant: piano and harpsichord next to the conductor, strings to the right. This is a terrific work, and Power’s ability to project long – seemingly endless – lines was called into good use. Schnittke’s setting of these lines against a crystalline background was magical; the BBCSO brass was in good form in their compensatory fortissimo, bell-encrusted outbursts. The surreal harpsichord contribution to the central Allegro molto only added to the bizarre, patchwork quilt impression of this central panel; the finale’s trombone chorales, its implications of harmonic arrival points and its closing grim processional were of huge impact. Throughout, Power not only coped with Schnittke’s huge demands but seemed to feed off them; Vedernikov was a fine collaborator (accompanist is the wrong word). The BBCSO was at its absolute best.

Finally, came Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony. The score itself is lop-sided in that it comprises a long first movement followed by two shorter and very different movements; perhaps this mirrored the asymmetry of the concert itself. Again, the BBC players responded well to Vedernikov’s direction. The long lower string melody of the opening was very alive (no hanging about here, despite the marking of Largo). The balancing of the brass section spoke of careful rehearsal, while Alison Teale’s superb cor anglais shaped that instrument’s long solo to perfection, just as Marie Lloyd triumphed with her bass clarinet solo later on.

The effect of the arrival of the second movement was that of a sudden spotlight blazing onto the music; but it was left to that outrageous, circus finale to round off the evening with a knowing smirk. Yet despite all the shenanigans, the critic’s ear reveals that even here care had gone into orchestral.

A splendid concert in many respects. The BBC Symphony is clearly flourishing.

Colin Clarke

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