Rachel Nicholls Premieres Nicola LeFanu’s The Crimson Bird

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schreker, LeFanu and Rachmaninov: Rachel Nicholls (soprano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Ilan Volkov (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 17.2.2017. (AS)

SchrekerDer ferne Klang – Nachtstück

LeFanuThe Crimson Bird (world premiere)

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

According to the programme note it took Franz Schreker almost seven years to write his opera Die ferne Klang, and in 1906, having struggled with Act II, he decided to work his way back into the opera by composing an interlude between two scenes of a planned Act III. This interlude depicts the feverish state of mind of the principal character Fritz, a composer, who is now old and ill, and who has witnessed the failure of his new opera. The music is understandably turbulent, the scoring for a large orchestra is opulent, and the piece has many intriguing twists and turns. If the style is basically very late Romantic, there are some attractive astringencies in the music which mark Schreker as having an individual voice: similar characteristic trademarks can be heard in the composer’s dance-pantomime The Birthday of the Infanta, written two years later. This impressive piece was given a whole-hearted performance by Volkov and the BBCSO.

In her own note the composer Nicola LeFanu told us that for her new work for soprano and orchestra, The Crimson Bird, she approached a regular collaborator, the poet John Fuller, for a text based on Euripides’s tragedy The Trojan Women. The music for the resulting cycle of four poems was written for the soprano Rachel Nicholls and with her voice in mind. The scoring is for a large orchestra: no doubt in this respect the composer took into account Nicholls’s credentials as a performer of Wagnerian roles and the possessor of a powerful vocal instrument. Not only is Nicholls’s voice powerful, but it is amazingly agile, as was proved on this occasion when challenged by LeFanu’s often extreme leaps of interval and generally virtuoso writing. In the second poem the soloist speaks some of her words: Nicholls’s diction, both in song and speech, was not ideally clear. I did not detect any great qualities of invention in the music itself, which in its complex, vaguely keyless and rhythmless nature exhibits a style common to many composers of today and yesterday.

What a shame that Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony met a tepid response at its first performance in 1936, for it is surely a great work, and maybe the last full-blooded Romantic symphony ever written. The first movement in particular has a peculiarly wistful, sad nature which was not fully exploited by Ilan Volkov in his slightly over-brisk, plainly stated account of the music. So much better was his account of the opening Adagio section of the second movement, warmly shaped and expressive, particularly in some finely played woodwind solo passages. The Allegro vivace section contained within this basically slow movement was handled with admirable trenchancy and a powerful swinging rhythm. Equally impressive was the driving force of the last movement, with its slow middle section again handled delicately and sensitively. It was a pity that Volkov over-drove the end of the work, though perhaps he was trying to compensate for the composer’s rather unconvincing winding-up process at this point. The BBCSO played well throughout the work and indeed throughout the concert.

Alan Sanders          

Leave a Comment