Brave emphasis on spirituality at Bridgewater Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Vaughan Williams, Gubaidulina: Vadim Gluzman (violin), Robin Tritschler (tenor), BBC Philharmonic / Vassily Sinaisky (conductor). Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. 23.4.2017. (RBa)

Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910); Symphony No 3 A Pastoral Symphony (1921)
Sofia Gubaidulina Offertorium (1980, rev. 1986)

You might perhaps have expected evocations of lances at full tilt, derring-do and valour from an orchestral concert on St. George’s Day. Not so in this case. The first and last items, by RVW, were in keeping with the tone of the Great War centenary events soon to be three-quarters through their full course. The sorrow, the slaughter and the pity of war have been dominant themes. That was the case here, with the two British works written four years before and three years after that War.

This concert, given on a quiet Sunday evening, took some decidedly courageous repertoire decisions. This may have accounted for the less than fully packed auditorium. The Tallis Fantasia was the most popular item, while the Pastoral is I suspect the least performed of the RVW symphonies, contending for that position with the Ninth. It is a rare privilege to hear The Pastoral live with its four slow movements and general air of English understatement. As for the Gubaidulina, it is her most performed work but a thorny listen, and is way out in terra incognita. The whole concert is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. As a mix, it fits like a glove the BBCPO’s mission to present a diverse and risk-taking range of repertoire.

Sinaisky, who conducted the whole evening without baton, is no stranger to British music. He is the orchestra’s Conductor emeritus. The instrumental components of the Tallis Fantasia were here deployed with string quartet members in their usual “first” positions, the first and second violins not split left and right. The main orchestra, including the string quartet, comprised fifty strings. The additional ten-member string ensemble was placed up high at the extreme left-hand side of the main stage at choir level. This helped with work’s gently surging spatial geometry which complements and intensifies the at times overwhelming spirituality. The Fantasia continues to sound like a work “for all the ages”, yet also timeless. It is difficult to think ourselves into the heads of the audience at the first performance who found it baffling. Sinaisky appeared to revel in the shifting and almost disorientating veils of sound, as well as in the signature exposed roles of Yuri Torchinsky’s first violin and also the principal viola. The results were totally idiomatic, evocative of a cathedral acoustic and moving despite bouts of almost targeted fortissimo coughing.

The Gubaidulina is a toughish proposition, although its humanity is never in doubt. Offertorium, a concerto for violin and orchestra, is the composer’s signature work. It has been crucial in helping her name travel beyond Russia. Written for Gidon Kremer, this work was played by Vadim Gluzman, who has also recorded Gubaidulina’s Second Violin Concerto. Unusually, Gluzman introduced the work to the audience. He referred to the composer’s deeply rooted and formidably sincere religious motivation. He spoke of Offertorium as the greatest work of the 20th century; indeed of all time. These are exalted claims, impressive from a soloist about to perform the very work for which he makes these assertions. The version of Offertorium performed here dated from 1986 and was in a single unblinking 33 minute span . That is about 12 minutes short of the initial full version of work.

The score starts with Webern’s orchestration of the grave theme from The Musical Offering. Gubaidulina rapidly asserts herself. The theme is dissected, trimmed, pruned, meditated upon and transformed. She has miraculously inventive ways and many far from obvious instrumental combinations in what is a huge orchestra rise briefly, make a telling, indeed gripping, effect and move on. There are many grateful roles for the orchestra, alongside the cantorial persona of Vadim Gluzman’s violin. I will just mention that in the first quarter hour we hear an unsettling duet for viola and bass trombone, and a fascinating extended episode for celesta, marimba, xylophone and two harps. Towards the end there is a long hypnotic passage with the repeated sounds of a descending five- or six-note figure for cimbalom. The final note is touched off gently by the addition of a single incantatory stroke on one of the tubular bells. Time stands still in a way reminiscent of the close of Allan Pettersson’s Seventh Symphony. The over-arching impression of this work is pointilliste, quiet and serene. This does not preclude barking urgency from brass and percussion. Gluzman seems always in control yet head-bowed, subjugated to and trusting in the composer’s will. He produced some extraordinary and even unsettling sounds, just teetering on the edge of audibility. These included whispered screeches and skating screes of notes. At one point he produces a note-group, for all the world, like intimately sounded pan-pipes. At others Sinaisky and Gluzman bring us a surreally melting impression of the decay of giant bell sounds. Offertorium is no mean proposition, and it is worth the effort of persistence. Sinaisky directed applause to Gluzman and to the many stars within the orchestra in a work that in some aspects can be treated as a sort of devotional concerto for orchestra.

After the interval the BBCPO were back — minus about 25 players — for Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony. This too is a work of spirituality, which just goes to show that a composer does not need to adhere to a particular religion to produce spiritually moving results. The thoughtful performance was strong on the composer’s many opportunities for solo instruments singing prominently out of the orchestral tissue. Prominent among these were the cor anglais, oboe, flute and first horn. Those fanfares—recalling, it seems, the composer’s experience of Corot-lit mornings in the fields of Northern France—rang out memorably from the principal trumpet, fortissimo rather than understated. Also memorable, and for me creating an uncertain impression, was the lickety-split tempo of the rocking and rolling third movement. I have my doubts about how fast it was taken. Then again, Sinaisky adopted similar celerity in the Moeran Symphony with the BBCPO at the Proms in 2009, and that worked.

Tenor, Robin Tritschler, very much in the Ian Partridge school — he made a fine impression in Finzi last year — was the vocalising solo in the finale. Standing high and to the left in the choir seats, he made two short but notable contribution. In the second, at the very end, he accentuated the distanced effect by singing facing to the left of the orchestra rather than full-on to the audience. It is more than good that a work like this, confident in its substance beneath a self-effacing surface, should have been given its chance. Sinaisky is not a great showman, nor does he need to be, but his mettle shows in the last movement when he leaned right down with an encouraging gesture to Torchinsky to bring out one of RVW’s classic pastoral moments of “notable ecstasy”. 

Rob Barnett

1 thought on “Brave emphasis on spirituality at Bridgewater Hall”

  1. I never knew that Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony can be performed with a tenor rather than a soprano as the soloist in the finale. Are there any recordings with a tenor?


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