A Stimulating BBC Symphony Concert Despite the Distracting Visual Projections

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Britten and Wigglesworth: Barnabás Kelemen (violin), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 2.3.2016 (CS)

Stravinsky: Agon
Britten: ‘Four Sea Interludes’ and ‘Passacaglia’ from Peter Grimes, with visual interpretations by Tal Rosner (London premiere of version with projections)
Ryan Wigglesworth: Violin Concerto (2011, rev. 2013)
Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms

Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes do not seem the most likely candidate for visual (re-)interpretation, so embedded are they within the visual and theatrical context of the opera and its Aldeburgh setting.  Who can hear the piercing lace-work of the high violins in the opening bars without seeing a solitary gull, floating aloft the Suffolk shore, dipping and dancing courtesy of the wind’s buoyancy?  Or sense the latent, and dangerous, submarine force which swells the undulating ripples of the clarinet and harp into the horns’ engulfing waves?

In 2013, Britten’s centenary year, at the Aldeburgh Festival Peter Grimes was staged on Aldeburgh beach, in the shadow of Maggie Hambling’s steely scallop tribute; local milieu literally became theatrical backdrop, the music mingling with the sounds of sea, wind and shingle.  In America, four major orchestras – the New World Symphony (Miami), Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony – commissioned the BAFTA-winning artist Tal Rosner to produce visuals to accompany the ‘Four Sea Interludes’.  Now the BBC Symphony Orchestra have added a commission for Act 2’s more abstract instrumental ‘Passacaglia’, the material of which derives from Grimes’s phrase, ‘God have mercy upon me’ and the chorus’s related riposte, ‘Grimes is at his exercise’.

The visual inspiration for the accompaniment to the ‘Interludes’ was the topography of the four commissioning cities, and Rosner has woven a digital tapestry from photographic shots of the cities’ bridges, rivers and highways.  At the start of ‘Dawn’, a non-figurative mosaic gradually coheres: grey squares assemble in a patterned pixilation and transform into a river vista; the entrance of the brass triggers a series of varying perspective, long- and short-range shots of the city’s landmarks and waterside.  I was reminded of a tourist board promotional video.  Geometric patterns formed from symbols of construction – girders, grids, wheels, moving cars, concrete arches – flash onto the screen, approximately in time with the tense syncopations of ‘Sunday Morning’ and the rampages of the ‘Storm’; the power of the machine is skilfully evoked, but ‘the modern metropolis’ has little in common with the musical content.  In ‘Moonlight’ we peer through windows in a black grid at teasing glimpses of a city bay; and, as if he doesn’t trust the music to convey its meaning, Rosner concludes the sequence with a crescent moon against a night sky.

I resisted the temptation to shut my eyes and just listen to the oral riches and the fantastic instrumental playing.  The strings played with an intensely focused tone; the woodwind solos were finely crafted and penetratingly projected; the dark weight of the brass suggested deeply submerged energies.  Wigglesworth was a model of precision and clarity.  But, compelled to pay attention, I found myself irritated by what I could see, and distracted from what I could hear.  Only in the ‘Passacaglia’, inserted between ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Moonlight’, did the evolving, circular patterns – flowering forms reminiscent of fossils, fronds, grains – acquire significance through their abstraction, and cohere with the yearning melancholy of Norbert Blume’s solo viola – which embodies the workhouse boy’s aching misery – above the dark, vibrato-less pizzicatos of the cellos and basses.  But, even here Rosnar did not desist from material presentation, and the visuals closed with an image of a looming tower-block and wasteland worthy of Orwell’s 1984.

After such visual diversions, the persuasive aural arguments of Ryan Wigglesworth’s own Violin Concerto were a breath of fresh air.  The three movements of this twenty-minute work are performed in a single span, and there is an engaging sense of quest and resolution.  Although there is a post-Bergian luxuriance about the harmonic language, the textures are quite sparse – the opening of the Allegro movendo in which the solo violin is accompanied by just the bass strings of the harp takes bareness to an extreme – and in this performance Wigglesworth defined the shifting colours, textures and registers in the orchestral fabric with painterly accuracy.

Hungarian violinist, Barnabás Kelemen – for whom the work was revised in 2013 – produced an appealing tone that was by turns full and quite husky, and projected the score’s eloquent musical contentions with sensitivity and understanding.  The thought-provoking cadenza combined delicacy and agility; Kelemen’s pizzicato and double-stopping were both energised and lyrical.  The third movement, Allegro furioso­, was increasingly fiery, and there were superb contributions from the horns which complemented the rich string sound.

The two works by Stravinsky which framed the programme brought out the best in Wigglesworth and the BBCSO.  The twelve dances of Agon achieved what Rosnar had failed to do: that is, they showed how a meeting of art forms could result in utterly convincingly cross-representation, as opposed to disjuncture.  So finely sculptured and animated were the rhythmic dialogues and motifs that closing one’s eyes brought the muscular physical of dancing figures to the imagination, conveying interactions of both suppleness and stricture.  Wigglesworth coaxed timbres of pungent crispness from the BBCSO; at times the flavour was ‘antique’, elsewhere ‘exotic’ – sometimes both within one dance, as in the ‘Galliarde’ (for two female dancers).  Guest leader Stephanie Gonley played with vibrancy and power in the demanding solo passages, and her crisp stylishness was matched by lead cellist, Susan Monks.  Timpanist Christopher Hind flamboyantly conjured primeval energies, in a recurring interlude, while the trumpets dazzled in their racing, canonic ‘Branse simple’.  Wigglesworth built compellingly towards the climactic ‘Pas-de-deux’: we might have been in the theatre rather than the concert hall.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms might have seemed a sombre work with which to end, but for all its ritual formality, on this occasion the over-riding mood was one of joyful faith.  Particularly impressive were the beautifully crafted woodwind ensemble, gradually acquired more strands, which opens the second movement, and the well-controlled vocal fugue which follows (‘Expectans expectavi’).  Encouraged by a vibrant timpani entry the BBC Symphony Chorus swelled richly – rejoicing in the ‘new song’ which the Lord has ‘put in my mouth’ (‘Et immisit in os meum canticum novum’), then effecting a wonderful subito piano to convey the people’s ‘fear’ (‘et timebunt’), before hope and faith in their Lord console them.  The contending instrumental voices of the full-textured ‘Alleluia’ had real bite, and above the booming processional gait of the timpani the chorus rose in ecstatic celebration: an uplifting conclusion.

Claire Seymour

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