fri 25/09/2020

Shaham, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Robertson, Royal Albert Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Shaham, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Robertson, Royal Albert Hall

Shaham, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Robertson, Royal Albert Hall

Turnage turns 50 while Shaham wows us with Barber

When Mark-Anthony Turnage presents a piece called Hammered Out, that’s pretty much what you expect to hear. Prior to starting work on this co-commission between BBC Radio 3 and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Turnage was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to write an old man’s piece.” The trouble is that this 15-minute juggernaut for large orchestra sounds like an elder statesman – ie the symphony orchestra – masquerading as a mover and shaker: or to be brutally frank, an old swinger in urgent need of a hip replacement. As a seasoned Turnage fan, I hesitate to say that there’s more than a hint of clapped-out about Hammered Out.

This Proms World Premiere starts arrestingly enough with bone-crushing chords alternating with semi-quaval anxiety (an idea apparently shared with his forthcoming opera Anna Nicole) as if the beast has itchy feet. Squealing glissandi then kick off the arthritic percussion vamp or “loop” - which behaves like the first of the multi-track ideas to be laid down – and in comes the lumbering “swing” motif, cheesy and generic. A big horn theme (underpinned with saxes and violins) appearing in seductive canon with woodwind is a promising diversion and later in the piece there are outgrowth ideas – most memorably a lyric germination in the strings – which one hopes might pull one away from the effortful bump and grind. But maybe Turnage’s obsession with turning 50 is something he should embrace and maybe a new direction would truly rejuvenate him. I’m now doubly curious to hear what Anna Nicole brings.

In pronounced contrast, Samuel Barber’s well-honed Violin Concerto seemed blissfully content in its own skin. Gil Shaham – such an inquisitive, “giving”, player – made much of its conversational tone and secretive shared moments. The opening, more fluid, more loquacious than you sometimes hear it, established a certain volatility and even danceability, mysteriously Scottish in tone. Richard Simpson, the BBC Symphony’s first oboe, generously welcomed that gorgeous tune in the slow movement and how beautifully Shaham understood his place in the scheme of things from his shyly apprehensive first entry to the long-awaited moment when he, too, ardently embraces the theme down on the soulful G-string. The last movement, too, felt like less of a virtuosic afterthought with Shaham and David Robertson finding plenty of dynamic interest to point and enliven some kind of fling, Highland or otherwise.

Robertson’s account of Sibelius’s Second Symphony certainly highlighted the stylistic individuality of the piece – the brisk outdoor tone of the first movement slowly but surely opening out from its somewhat hyperactive beginnings to an expansive oneness with its surroundings. Robertson really caught this shift in tone with brilliant and impulsive opening pages and his attacca from the abrupt ending of the first movement into the highly circumspect walking rhythm of the second made them one – elemental and unpredictable with resounding silences and implacably raw horns.

The all-important transition from scherzo to finale was less well achieved, a certain lack of co-ordination apparent from my rather distant seat to the rear of the hall. Consequently the big tune never quite achieved the release and uplift we’ve come to hope for and expect. So the ascendancy was never quite achieved – and in this symphony that’s the difference between inspiring and satisfactory.

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