Fascinating Premieres from Joshua Weilerstein and the BBCSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Joseph Hallman, Brett Dean and Rachmaninov: Allison Bell (soprano), Allan Clayton (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Joshua Weilerstein (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 1.11.2016. (CS)

Joseph Hallmanricordi decomposti: A Gesualdo Suite (UK premiere)
Brett DeanFrom Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffraction) (BBC commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninov – Symphonic Dances Op.45

Joseph Hallman is not the first composer to be inspired to revisit and ‘re-compose’ the music of the Carlo Gesualdo, the Renaissance Count who is known as much for his mental instability and violent actions as for the idiosyncratic waywardness of his chromatic wanderings and harmonic progressions.  Stravinsky’s Monumentum pro Gesualdo, composed in 1960 for Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, comprises re-orchestrations of some of the Italian’s fifth and sixth books of madrigals, while the ‘Tres sacrae cantiones’, composed in honour of the 400th anniversary of Gesualdo’s birth, were ‘creative completions’ of three songs taken from a volume of twenty which were published in parts in I603 but whose sextus and bassus parts are lost.

Now Hallman has continued the conversation between past and present, with ricordi decomposti: A Gesualdo suite, which was commissioned by conductor Joshua Weilerstein for the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, of which he is Artistic Director, and premiered by the ensemble in September this year.  The title, meaning ‘decomposed memories’, alludes to the morbid mythology associated with Gesualdo, who was believed to have engaged in sadistic, lewd and violent acts, culminating in the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.  Hallman has selected five-part vocal works – four madrigals from the Sixth Book of 1613 alongside the ‘Omnes amici mei’ from the 1611 Responsories, though the latter was omitted in this performance – and transcribed them for chamber orchestra, seeking to create ‘new colours and textures to bring these provocative masterworks to life for new audiences and performers’.  Interspersed between the five movements are intermezzi sospirosi, or ‘whisper interludes’, which ‘present fragments of the texts which disappear’ in the process of transcription for instruments.

A reduced-size BBC Symphony Orchestra – just three desks of each string group, with piccolo, flute, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets and percussion including bells, vibraphone and glockenspiel – delicately conjured what Hallman describes as ‘sound-paintings’.  The technique is quasi-pointillistic, as Hallman crafts tiny gestures into contrasting hues, which merge and morph seamlessly.  Bass clarinet, bassoon and cello formed a grainy, bass-heavy sonority for the opening of the first song, ‘Moro, lasso, al mio duolo’, to be followed by a brightening and alleviating as the declamatory ‘arioso’ style segued into a lightly tripping dance.  Textures varied too: a thick, nasal woodwind blend gave way to a violin solo, expressively played by leader Gregory Ahss, against a plangent woodwind accompaniment; at times, the strings barely flicked their bows upon the strings, elsewhere denser string counterpoint added vigour and fullness.  The movements drifted between worlds, as melodies of Renaissance grace and strength contrasted with jazz-inspired harmonies and colours, the latter made more piquant by energised xylophone gestures.

There was much to interest and delight the listener; Hallman has clearly both exercised technical discipline and allowed his imagination to work freely.  The music was airy, transparent and finely wrought.  But I found the absence of the texts slightly disconcerting; the murmured contributions of the players during the intermezzi did not made a telling impact, and the ‘songs’ were not sufficiently individualised to suggest the ‘meaning’ of the words that were at the heart of Gesualdo’s original expressive utterance.

There were more ‘troubling’ words, and dialogues between past and present, in Brett Dean’s From Melodious Lay – this time in the form of a ‘scrambling’ of passages of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or as Dean (the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Artist in Association) puts it, A Hamlet Diffraction.  This orchestral poem for soprano and tenor follows several other compositions – the String Quartet No.2 with soprano (‘And once I played Ophelia’), Gertrude Fragments, and a short suit of miniatures for mezzo-soprano and guitar – which have developed from Dean’s work on a new opera, Hamlet, commissioned by Glyndebourne and to be premiered in the Sussex House next summer.  Dean’s librettist, Matthew Jocelyn, has selected fragments from Shakespeare’s play, re-ordering and re-assigning the lines so that they form a non-linear, non-narrative text which invites, in the creators’ words, ‘a poetic and musical exploration of colliding worlds, those of Hamlet and Ophelia, those of Shakespeare and our own, those of the written world and its musical reflection’.

Composed for large orchestra with extensive percussion, the work’s seven sections form an unbroken sequence, moving through varied, but always powerful and tense, dramatic moods.  The opening of ‘I thought thy Bride-Bed to have Deck’d’ is eerily gothic; the swooning glissandi, fluttering string gestures and tensely pulsing timpani recalled the ‘sleep music’ in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: richly evocative and unsettling.  The glissandi invade the vocal lines too, adding further instability and unpredictability; onomatopoeic effects create immediacy – as when the soprano shrieks, ‘As it did seem to shatter all bulk’, or the percussion add terror to the tenor’s brutal observation that Hamlet appears to ‘have been loosed of hell …’  Weilerstein made sure that every detail was heard and felt, conducting the capricious and volatile score with confidence, clarity and precision.  He judged the quickenings of pace perfectly, as when the tenor rejoices ‘This is the very ecstasy of love, the very ecstasy of love’ in the second section, ‘O Lord, as I was Sewing in my Closet’.  Elsewhere there was a sense of suspended time, as established by the harp ostinato which trickled through the third section, ‘The Most Beautiful Ophelia’, the repetitions disturbed by rhythmically asymmetrical bass pizzicati.  The fourth section is a fiery instrumental interlude, propelled by dynamic horn-playing, angry and angular string gestures, and piercing woodwind.

Allan Clayton will take the role of Hamlet at Glyndebourne in June and his performance here bodes well.  He was not afraid to unleash the Danish prince’s rage, in angry shouts and yells – ‘and into the madness/ Wherein now I rave’ – but slipped easily into nonchalant playfulness, ‘Shall I lie in your lap?’  Soprano Allison Bell created ‘And once I played Ophelia’, though the role of Ophelia will be performed at Glyndebourne by Barbara Hannigan.  She displayed a silvery lustre and an agility of voice which conjured anxiety, theatricality and tension.  Her quavering ‘Never, never, never, never doubt I love’ was a hypnotising murmur (while Clayton turned the ‘n’ in his repetitive pattern into a nasal sneer), and her lamenting keen was, alongside unsettling pizzicato, a disturbing accompaniment to Clayton’s ‘He is dead and gone, lady’.   The bass clarinet evoked the bubbling brook over which ‘a willow grows aslant’, and in this penultimate section Clayton too acquired a lamenting air, the vocal glissandi and dynamic swells returning us to the ambience of the opening.  For the final ecstatic section, ‘Farewell, My Dove’, Bell moved to the rear, beside the harp, but her parting cry, ‘Good night, good night/ Sweet ladies’, glided sensuously across the orchestra – a truly melodious lay.

After the interval, came Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances of 1940, a late work which the composer described as ‘probably my last flicker’ but which is oft judged to be one of his best.  Weilerstein offered a fairly safe reading of the work and both its rhythmic vitality and impassioned, folk-imbued lyricism seemed subdued.  It’s true that the first movement is marked Non allegro, but I felt that the music needed more edge and punch: the very opening was exquisitely delicate but, though the strings worked hard, the pounding arpeggio descent of the main theme lacked dynamism.  The shift from C minor to E major effected a disarming shift from weightiness to lucidity, and the mournful saxophone solo was beautifully crafted and adroitly accompanied by the wind, though the overall timbre lacked a truly yearning soulfulness and the horns seemed restrained.  The Andante con moto was definitely a ‘waltz’, elegant and precise, rather than a danse macabre with a tinge of nervous wildness.  Solos for violin, oboe and cor anglais were stylishly shaped and as the movement progressed the tempo picked up and things skipped along with easy grace, but I missed the music’s dark shadows of melancholy and wistfulness.

The Finale, too, took a while to get going, but Weilerstein did whip up more of a storm towards the close, finally finding a greater freedom, though never reckless.  The Dies Irae, which appears in a lively rhythmic guise, was gloriously bellowed by the horns, and the self-quotation from the ‘Gloria’ of the ninth movement of the All-Night Vigil – evidence of Rachmaninov’s lifelong fascination with ecclesiastical chant and incorporates – had stately gravitas.  The conductor followed Rachmaninov’s instruction that the final tam-tam strikes should be played laissez vibrer and the fortissimo reverberations faded theatrically from roar to whisper. The BBCSO could not be faulted technically: the unanimity of articulation, ensemble and expression was impressive, and solos made their mark.  But Weilerstein need to take a few more risks to release the work’s manic, diabolical energy.

Claire Seymour

Leave a Comment