BBC Symphony Orchestra Impress on Tour of Switzerland

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Clyne, Britten, Beethoven: Vilde Frang (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 24.3.2018. (JR)

Vilde Frang 2014 for Warner Photo: Marco Borggreve
Vilde Frang (c) Marco Borggreve

ClyneThis Midnight Hour

Britten – Violin Concerto op.15

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 op.68

The BBCSO is on a short tour of Switzerland, Zurich and Geneva to be more precise. It is part of the admirable Migros Kulturprozent-Classics programme of visiting orchestras. The programme booklet informed the predominantly Swiss audience that the BBCSO is the flagship of the five UK orchestras funded by the BBC, going on to list its illustrious former Chief Conductors.

Its current Chief Conductor, Sakari Oramo, brought two English works to Switzerland, a piece written only a few years ago, This Midnight Hour, by young British composer Anna Clyne, getting its Swiss première; and Britten’s challenging Violin Concerto, about which more anon.

This concert was performed a few evenings ago in Birmingham and readers may have heard it live on BBC Radio 3.

Clyne, now living in America, based her 15-minute piece on two poems, one by Baudelaire, the other by Juan Ramon Jiménez. The latter depicts a naked woman running through the night, whilst Baudelaire’s poem evokes the atmosphere of a more tranquil, melancholic night. The energetic opening of the work brought to mind Siegmund running through the forest being chased by Hunding in Die Walküre; it certainly caught the audience’s attention from the outset. This was highly approachable contemporary music, tending unashamedly towards film music in style. My neighbour said it was the best modern music she had heard for a long while. Two lone (muted) trumpeters stood left and right to add a touch of spectacle, giving their solo contributions more prominence. After a quieter section, the piece climaxes before ending with one single very loud thud from the timpani, perhaps as though waking up suddenly or falling out of bed. The piece was extremely well received.

Britten composed his Violin Concerto just before World War II broke out, and it received its first performance in 1940 (by the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli). The piece is suitably sombre, but not without some typical Britten jauntiness and some achingly beautiful passages. Young Norwegian Vilde Frang was the superb soloist; her angelic facial expressions, particularly in the opening movement, added to the celestial aura of this piece. Frang’s technical prowess came to the fore when leaping to the top of the E string and in her double-stopping, but she stunned throughout. The militaristic Shostakovich-imbued second movement (Vivace) contains the lengthy cadenza, and Frang held the audience in the palm of her hand, they were transfixed. Oramo had the measure of the piece, as did the orchestra, but all eyes and ears were on the soloist. The Finale brought Nielsen to mind, before becoming contemplative and ethereal. At the end I swear the whole audience had stopped breathing, it was such a moving experience. Oramo held his hand high at the end for a minute or two, to prevent premature applause, and had no trouble succeeding.

After the Britten, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ was something of an anti-climax but soon cheered us up. This familiar territory needs no introduction, of course. This was the chance for the orchestra to show off his talents, which they duly did with aplomb. The first movement was appropriately joyful, Oramo had a smile on his face throughout. I was taken by the chirpy clarinet, joined in the second movement by the mellifluous flute. Oramo’s sweeping gestures aided the music’s flow, whilst in the storm scene he whipped up quite a frenzy. I had not heard the BBCSO for a while and was impressed with their sound (possibly on occasion rather too loud for the small, temporary concert hall), they were clearly very well-rehearsed, and they certainly compared well with Zurich’s own Tonhalle Orchestra.

Oramo could not resist some of his native music for the encore, which he announced, the delightful Entr’acte from Sibelius’ Pelléas and Mélisande.

 This was the BBCSO’s third visit to Switzerland in recent times and we very much look forward to future visits.

John Rhodes

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