Beaming smiles from members of the BBC SO as Jader Bignamini debuts with Pépin, Poulenc and Berlioz

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Pépin, Poulenc, Berlioz: Elizabeth Watts (soprano), BBC Symphony Chorus (director: Neil Ferris) and Orchestra / Jader Bignamini (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 19.4.2024. (KMcD)

Jader Bignamini

Camille Pépin – Les eaux célestes (UK premiere)
Poulenc Gloria
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

The prospect of an all-French programme conducted by one of the hottest properties on the conducting circuit, Italian maestro Daniele Rustioni, was too hard to resist, especially given he was to be joined by acclaimed British soprano, Sally Matthews. Alas it was not to be. Both artists pulled out at relatively short notice and were replaced with Jader Bignamini on the podium, one of Rustioni’s compatriots, while British singer Elizabeth Watts stepped up to the plate as soloist in Poulenc’s Gloria. These things invariably happen, although it was bad luck on the part of the BBC SO to lose both their featured artists.

Any sense of disappointment however was soon dispelled, as for the most part, a couple of niggles aside which we will get to later, this was an exemplary evening of music making, and the rapport between Bignamini and his players was evident from the start. By the end of the evening the beaming smiles from all members of the BBC SO indicated they were very happy with this, his unscheduled debut with the orchestra. One got the sense that he will be invited back – an invitation he has more than earned.

The main work on the programme was one of the most daring and original from the nineteenth century – Berlioz’s phantasmagorical Symphonie fantastique. It almost beggars belief that this was written only six years after Beethoven’s Ninth, where Berlioz tested the limits of the symphonic structure, albeit loosely, both in length, number of players, and the type of instruments used. Not only does Berlioz make use of an ‘idée fixe’ that he weaves throughout the work’s five movements (something that Wagner was later to introduce into his operas in the form of a leitmotif), but he creates an hallucinogenic musical tapestry that astounds and shocks at every turn.

However, it has to be said that the specific soundworld that Berlioz envisaged, is not what one hears when the work is played on modern instruments. One small case in point is the fact that Berlioz scored the work for two ophicleides, or serpents, which these days are replaced with tubas. The rasping quality Berlioz was after is smoothed out and similarly modern woodwinds and strings cannot replicate the bracing quality which only comes from original-instrument performances.

Still, all sections of the BBC SO acquitted themselves admirably, in what was a fiercely driven and determined performance of this astonishing work. However, Bignamini occasionally played fast and loose with Berlioz’s instructions – most notably an over-the-top rallentando in the ‘March to the Scaffold’, where the grim procession sounded as though it had got stuck in the mud towards the close. This was a shame, as for the most part his conducting was pitch perfect, capturing the whirling hedonism of the second movement’s ‘Ball’, and final descent into the abyss, ‘Dream of a Sabbath night’ to perfection. There was a sense of wonderment and melancholy in the ‘Scene in the Country’, made all the more mesmerising by Charis Lai’s melancholic cor anglais and Fergus McCready’s offstage oboe.

The concert began with the UK premiere of Camille Pépin’s Les eaux célestes, a short curtain raiser infused with filigree orchestral touches, repetitive riffs, and plenty of colour. This 34-year-old’s musical style owes a debt of gratitude to the minimalist school, most notably John Adams, and on the basis of this shimmering work, one wants to hear more of her.

This was followed by Poulenc’s Gloria – a work whose brevity (around 20 minutes) belies its originality, exuberance and musical invention. The brass fanfares which punctuate the work were vividly executed, while the BBC Symphony Chorus, despite a couple of moments of querulous soprano singing, dispatched Poulenc’s thrilling vocal lines admirably. Watts was an unalloyed delight – her singing seraphic, with plenty of gorgeously floated high notes, especially in the Domine Deus section. Bignamini marshalled his forces effectively – it was just a shame this joyous work was over so soon.

Keith McDonnell

Leave a Comment