BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican review ****

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BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo (conductor), Martin Frost (clarinet)

Barbican Hall, 17th October 2017

  • Dmitry Shostakovich – Symphony No 9 in E flat major Op 70
  • Aaron Copland – Clarinet Concerto
  • Sergei Prokofiev – Symphony No 6 in E flat major Op 111

Vikings, stave churches, Celsius, Bohr, Angstrom, Ibsen, Strindberg, Laxness, Kierkegard, Nielsen, Sibelius, Greig, Munch, Balke, Olafur Eliasson, ABBA, Bjork, Bergman (x2), Lars von Trier, Ullman, Sofia Helin, Mads Mikklesen, Kim Bodnia, the laconic Kimi, Schmeichel (P), Salonen (EP), Lego, IKEA, SAAB, zips, mobile phones, seat belts, loudspeakers, Alvar Aalto, Arne Jacobsen, art glass, Georg Jensen, BIG, arket, meatballs, herring, saunas, Gamla Stam, Djurgarden, Tivoli, that Bridge, Roskilde Cathedral, Uppsala Cathedral, Copenhagen Opera House, Temppeliaukio Church. There’s a few of my favourite Scandi  people and things. And that’s before anything from the natural world. And doesn’t include those Scandinavians I would count as friends. There are good reasons why Scandis are generally pretty pleased with themselves, though not in a wanky kind of way. They have much to be pleased about.

Anyway it turns out that there is an organisation for promoting the Scandinavian countries and their culture. CoScan. The Confederation of Scandinavian Societies. And every year since 1994 it has given an award to recognise the contribution of an individual. body or group on the international stage. Previous winners have included Sandi Toksvig, Magnus Carlsen (the best chess player in the world), Hans Blix, The Nordic Optical Telescope, that Bridge and Mika Hakkinen. This year was the turn of Finn Sakari Oramo, the Finnish Conductor of (amongst others) the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Presented on this very evening. Good on you Sakari. He seems like a thoroughly decent bloke and we here should be eternally grateful for the musical contribution he has made, especially to the Proms (five this year alone). He is a whizz across much of the Scandi composer repertoire, but especially Carl Nielsen, whose symphonies and, especially string quartets, don’t get enough of an airing IMHO.

in this programme he also wheeled out three works that should be performed more often. DSCH’s 9th may not be down there with the weird and whacky modernism of Nos 2 and 3 and the overly patriotic, fim-scorish 12th, but it does get neglected. Copland’s jazzy Clarinet Concerto is one of his favourites and was written for Benny Goodman but is pretty tricky so needs a top-notch soloist to do it justice. And Prokofiev’s 6th Symphony is rated by enthusiasts of his work but it is 1 and 5 that get trotted out most often.

So this seemed to me to be well-worth the effort. Which it certainly was. All three works come from the immediate post WWII era, and a scary time personally for DS and SP, but they are far from completely gloomy, at least in places.

Copland’s concerto is genuinely untroubled, and was premiered by Goodman in 1950. The slower opening drops straight out of Copland’s Americana, specifically Appalachian Spring, kicking off with low strings and harps, against which the clarinet meanders, with the violins then following. Just like the sad scene when the love interest dies in a Western. It then jumps into what seems to me to be a fiendishly tricky cadenza, fully written out, which Martin Frost, doing that curious Pied Piper jig that woodwind soloists seem to adore, made look simples. Of course maybe it is. What would I know. I got booted out of recorder practice at school on the grounds of persistent ineptitude. It ends with a fortissimo scale from one end of the clarinet range to the other. Amazing. Straight into the faster, final section, with all sorts of string effects like a sort of mega Bartok quartet. More showing off from Mr Frost with a jazz jam to finish. He encored with a klezmer arrangement from his brother Goran which near brought the house down. There he is above looking suitably impish. Frost is a good name for him.

DSCH initially promised a big splash for his Ninth, with soloists and chorus, just like you no who. Shostakovich being Shostakovich though what he actually served up was a five movement, small scale (by his terms) joke, which barely gets over the finish line. Obviously he has form with odd, almost embarrassingly jejune structures, and musical satire, as much as he could get away with, witness the Sixth, but here we have what I read as an entire flippant f*ck you across a whole symphony. Maybe not just to his political masters but also to the music world in general. Everything he is routinely accused of is there but recast in a sort of Haydn-esque jollity. Scurrying strings, whistling woodwind, boy soldier drums, farting brass fanfares, an abrupt “I’ve done enough” concluding chord. And that’s just the first movement. The second movement is one of those desolate stalking Moderatos but never plumbs the depths and the screaming strings never come. The scherzo lollops along but with no repeat slows into the regulation Largo with doomy fanfare and bassoon lament which as always for me at least conjures up the battlefield dead. But again it is on a tiny scale. This is the sort of movement DSCH can crank up to 20 minutes plus. This is all over in four. The symphony ends with a quick movement which kicks of with a folksy little lick which builds up and eventually dashes over the line to the close. The whole thing is like some child’s Toy-town version of a DSCH symphony. Oramo and the BBCSO, correctly, didn’t attempt to make a case for profundity, taking it straight. I loved it.

Once again I found myself being really taken with a major Prokofiev piece that I had dismissed previously. It is the most symphonic of his symphonies, the most expansive and the most, dare I say Shostakovich-ian. It does occasionally start to go a little too C19 Romantic on your ass but there are enough of the trademark SP lurches and new twists to forestall tedium. So, like DCSH, got himself into a lot of bother with Stalin’s “realist” henchman by being a sarky, modernist clever clogs. The difference is SP actually came back to Russia to face this, er, critical music. He liked to satisfy his customer but the iconoclast in him could never be entirely suppressed. The Sixth, as a commemoration for the war dead was initially OK’d by the authorities but then, in 1948, censured.

The first movement kicks off with a couple of lazy themes led by strings then oboes before snapping into gear with a third, more forthright chanting theme, set against a tick-tock rhythm, which revives the first theme and sets up a massive tutti climax. A mixture of Mahler, Shostakovich and Saint Saens, it collapses into horn squeals, then all three themes are reprised. As usual with SP it lurches around a bit but has some great colours and sounds. It can probably turn into a bit of a grandiloquent mess in the wrong hands but I reckon Mr Oramo, by cracking on, get it about right.

The second movement Largo starts off with a series of big, chromatic gestures, but with some swinging brass, a bit like Wagner loosened up and had a nice long toke. Then we move into a kind of dreamy, lyrical reminiscence, all Hollywood love story, which breaks back into the tick-tock march of the second theme, before the first is reprised, in size. Overall this movement is genuinely unsettling.

As, in some ways, is the final movement marked Vivace, but only because it kicks off in perky neo-Classical vein. Though the bass line is anything but gallant, thumping away angrily, and backed up with percussive piano. The second idea is another jolly scamp led by woodwind, then rising strings, but this time with the tuba doing its best to create havoc. Gradually the dance starts going off-kilter, the fun peters out, and nasty stuff jumps out. The chant from the first movement returns now over the percussive thuds and deep brass fanfares. A major triad to conclude. Happy and triumphant it ain’t.

Very convincing. I have subsequently revisited the work listening to a couple of Russian orchestra performances. It wasn’t just Sakari Oramo and the BBCSO who nailed this. It really is a terrific piece of music. I think I am properly converted to SP’s world. That’s the thing with “high” art. You just need to put the hours in.

 

 

 

 

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