wed 22/05/2024

Total Immersion: Julian Anderson, Barbican review - BBC ensembles showcase leading British composer | reviews, news & interviews

Total Immersion: Julian Anderson, Barbican review - BBC ensembles showcase leading British composer

Total Immersion: Julian Anderson, Barbican review - BBC ensembles showcase leading British composer

Well-sung choral music good but orchestral works even better

Julian Anderson and Edward Gardner take their applause at the Barbican Hall(c) Mark Allan

Julian Anderson’s 50th birthday this year was the prompt for the latest of the BBC’s Total Immersion days, devoted to the work of a single contemporary composer.

I have long been a fan of Anderson’s music since hearing the marvellous Khorovod in the 1995 Proms, but, after a couple of recent blips – I was not so keen on the opera Thebans or the recent Piano Concerto – I was ready to have my admiration re-awakened. And, in large measure, it was.

The day consisted of three concerts of which I heard two: the BBC Singers surveying Anderson’s choral output and the BBC Symphony Orchestra his orchestral works. At both concerts Julian Anderson was interviewed on stage before and in between the pieces. I like this way of connecting with the audience in concerts of new music but in this case found some of the links a little long and, although he is an eloquent broadcaster, some of Anderson’s contributions were a little awkward, until the final one when he gave voice to a passionate appreciation of the players and singers.

The BBC Singers, under Nicholas Kok, were in fine voice in the 5pm concert at St Giles Cripplegate. Anderson’s choral music is technically challenging, particularly harmonically, even in the works designed for amateurs. I was interested to hear the Four American Choruses in a chamber choir performance, having previously heard them sung by much larger forces. On balance I think they work better on a larger scale, although the BBC Singers gave a committed performance, sounding suitably bluesy in “At the Fountain”.

The riveting first movement of 'Fantasias', for brass alone, was thrillingly played by the BBCSO brass section

The highlight of the concert was Anderson’s Bell Mass of 2010, written for Westminster Abbey. It had echoes of the Anglican tradition, of an older Catholic style and also of modern classics like Stravinsky’s Mass. From the assertive opening, to the gorgeous “Amen” in the “Gloria”, a fantastic aleatoric climax to the “Sanctus” and the shaded microtonal solos of the “Benedictus” – soloists Charles Gibbs and Olivia Robinson stood out – I was carried along very enjoyably. Only the organ part seemed superfluous, interrupting the flow rather than supporting the voices.

If the choral music felt like the work of a very impressive choral composer, the BBCSO concert in the Barbican Hall made it clear that the orchestra is Julian Anderson’s true métier. Endlessly inventive in timbral and textural effects, it was also notable that there was more lyricism here than in the choral works.

This was evident from the start, Eden coming to life through Norbert Blume’s fragile viola solo, without vibrato and coloured with quarter-tones. The harmony, constructed according to the French “spectral” principles that Anderson was an early British advocate of, was delicious and enchanting. Imagin’d Corners, for orchestra with five obbligato horns, was exciting, especially in its flaring ending: Anderson is good at endings.Carolin Widmann plays Anderson's In liebliche BlaueThe first half ended with the violin concerto in all but name In lieblicher Bläue. Based on a Hölderlin prose-poem, the music traced “the journey of someone’s thoughts and feelings throughout a life”. This accounted for the episodic structure, and the piece was held together by the solo violin, a role strongly characterised by Carolin Widmann (pictured above with Edward Gardner and the BBCSO). The impish first minutes give way to a long aria for violin in the second half. Widmann’s sound was radiant, and Gardner gave her room to be expansive.

Perhaps the danger with immersive days is that some of the composer’s standby effects become diminished by repetition. Here the de-tuned piano popped up several times, as did Anderson’s predilection for having his players move around the stage. To me this served little effect apart from worrying that Widmann would trip on her dress, or that one of the horn players would step backwards and fall off the stage. Although these might seem trivial concerns, I bet I wasn’t the only person in the audience distracted by them, and so momentarily taken away from the music.

Other things that might have seemed gimmicky in fact served a use. In In lieblicher Bläue the soloist bowed with a pencil, and in doing so found an arresting sound that was imitated around the orchestra. At its premiere the Arts Desk reviewer found the pencil business irritating and the piece underwhelming; on this occasion I thought both worked, but I did find Widmann turning her back on the audience for the last two minutes pointless.Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSOThe second half featured Anderson’s Symphony (2003) and an “anti-symphony”, Fantasias (2009). Of these, the anti-symphony came off best. Symphony is all about continual flux and transformation, where Fantasias makes musical statements, with no development at all. The sound-world of Fantasias is bolder, starting with the riveting first movement for brass alone, thrillingly played by the BBCSO brass section. The “single headlong rush” of the fifth and final movement was also a showcase for fabulous orchestral playing. By comparison Symphony, although skillfully wrought, lacked a bit of punch.

It is a credit to the BBC that such an event as this took place. It is to the credit of the BBCSO that they can put together such a challenging programme of contemporary works in, presumably, limited rehearsal time. The understated and ultra-clear conducting of Edward Gardner (pictured above) can only have been a calming presence. And although Total Immersion days can leave you feeling like you’ve overindulged at the buffet, this one left me with a fresh appetite for Anderson's work.

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