Rising stars and radiant Poles: Orama conducts the BBCSO at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bacewicz, Mozart, Szymanowski: Johan Dalene (violin), Timothy Ridout (viola), Nicky Spence (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (conductor).  Barbican Hall, London, 10.2.2023. (CS)

Johan Dalene and Timothy Ridout © BBC/Mark Allan

Grażyna Bacewicz – Symphony No.4
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K364
Karol Szymanowski – Symphony No.3, Op.24 ‘The Song of the Night’

‘Poles apart’ began the online blurb for this BBCSO concert under their Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo at the Barbican, and the programme did seem to offer a rather strange pairing of symphonies by two twentieth-century Polish composers, Grażyna Bacewicz and Karol Szymanowski, framing Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante.  Both strands were appealing – especially as the concerto featured two ‘rising stars’ and former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists, violist Timothy Ridout and violinist Johan Dalene – but the elegant Classical composure of Mozart’s double concerto seemed an odd bedfellow for ravishing Polish radiance.

Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), was one of the few female composers in Poland in the post-war years to achieve a stature comparable with that of Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki.  Until the mid-1950s, Bacewicz led a very intensive concert life as solo violinist and orchestral leader alongside her composing activities, yet she still found time to write four symphonies during the years 1945-53.  Subsequently, she eschewed the label ‘symphony’ for her large, cyclic orchestral works, and the Fourth Symphony does feel rather ‘of its time’ – phrases such as ‘socialist realism’ and ‘neo-Romanticism’ rear their heads in some of the music criticism – painting its colour in big strokes, sometimes mechanistic, sometimes ebullient, sometimes mysterious.  It was premiered on 15th January 1954 in Kraków, by the Orchestra of the Kraków Philharmonic, conducted by Bohdan Wodiczko.  The influence of Szymanowski is evident, in the folk-derived qualities of the music and in the reaching for new sonorities, but also that of Béla Bartók, too – particularly the latter’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Interestingly, Bacewicz wrote to her brother Vytautas, also a composer, in February 1952: ‘Music is a fine art, but what was written then was ugly. […] Simplification of my musical language seemed most important to me.  Simplification, but not going back; not a return to classicism in the sense of the major[1]minor system, but finding something new and simple in its place, naturally – without rejecting the achievements of the part period, by which I mean the first half of the twentieth century.  Besides, composers were ashamed of their emotions. I have decided to reject this shame, and I am now writing emotional music.’

Sakari Oramo certainly made this music ‘emotional’.  The coloristic effects, the kinetic drive, the freely evolving structures, the rhythmic creativity were all exploited by Oramo, who conducted with evident conviction and passion, and the music wore its feelings on its sleeve.  Often the form felt organic, evolving intuitively, with climactic statements alternating with soloist passages – in the first movement Appassionato – Allegro inquisito there was some lovely playing from the first bassoon, above timpani rolls and meandering celli and basses, and from the bass clarinet.  In the Adagio the harmonic language and orchestral colours took on a more tragic tint, the ambience withdrawn, the ending ambiguous.  But, the incisiveness of Oramo’s gestures made the wit of the Scherzo compelling and the final Adagio mesto – Allegro furioso did what it says on the tin: there was a sense of carving huge spaces of sound allied with fluid invention and orchestral panache.

Nicky Spence with Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO © BBC/Mark Allan

At the other end of the programme we had the sensuous musical-inebriation of Szymanowski’s Song of the Night, composed during 1914-16 but not performed in the form that the composer intended until February 1928, in Lviv, conducted by Adam Sottys.  Oramo’s fluid gestures were relaxed but well-defined, and he conjured a rapturous sound-world above which tenor Nicky Spence could float, soar and roar.

The composer described the vocal material for the solo tenor (in the first and third section of the three-part, through-composed symphony) as being ‘more melodic than declamatory, and require[ing] quite a big and graceful, lyrically coloured voice’.  Well, Spence certainly has that, and he brilliantly conveyed the intoxication and elation of the text by the thirteenth-century Persian poet Jalâl al-Din Rumi (Szymanowski set a Polish translation by poet Tadeusz Miciiiski of Joseph Freiherr von Hammer’s German version) as the poet-speaker contemplates the intoxicating power of the Oriental night-sky and urges his companion to share in his epiphanic vision.  Bold, honest, rich of tone and at times explosive, Spence communicated the erotic intensity of the text which ends, ‘Silence binds my tongue,/ But I speak without a tongue tonight.’

Oramo judiciously balanced soloist, orchestra and chorus.  The heightened intensity of the huge tutti climaxes was countered by astonishing delicacy and transparency (some beautifully refined solos from leader Igor Yuzefovich were given room and air to sing and breathe).  The variety of colour was breathtaking – think Klimt’s Byzantine golds and Klee’s keyboard of complementary hues.

And, so, in between the electricity and eroticism, Mozart cleansed our palettes – maybe Oramo knew what he was doing when he planned this eclectic programme, after all!  Though the forces weren’t large (and double basses were seated), the BBCSO sound was a full and very present one throughout the Sinfonia Concertante.  Dalene and Ridout played with the tutti forces at the start of the Allegro maestoso, and while they did drop out before their entry, I did feel that this reduced the dramatic impact of that unison Eb-octave flip with which the soloists announce themselves.  When the conversations got underway, vigour was allied with grace – perhaps there was more of the former?  Ridout was more openly communicative, Dalene pristine and often inventive with the phrasing.  And, Oramo seemed keen to whip up the theatricality latent in the score.  Certainly, the shared smiles suggested that everyone was having terrific fun.  The decidedly off-score first-movement cadenza felt very ‘modern’ – mercurial, forthright, rhetorical.

The Andante felt a little too ‘pressing’ for me, missing a certain lyrical ‘repose’, though that’s not to deny the emotional tensions which the duo evoked.  The Presto danced with breezy confidence.  The unaffected pleasure communicated was a joy.  This was seemingly spontaneous, plain-speaking musicianship between friends which spoke to the many.

Claire Seymour

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