These three works are just forty years apart in origin yet offer a range of styles: Richard Strauss in 1895 at the peak of late Romanticism; Berg’s 1908 touching farewell to that world and a glimpse of what lay ahead; and Shostakovich in a stylistic rethink in response to mid-1930s state pressure (maybe). Of course in European history terms, and in music history terms, it was no ordinary forty years.

Dorothea Röschmann, Rafael Payare and the BBCSO © BBC | Mark Allan
Dorothea Röschmann, Rafael Payare and the BBCSO
© BBC | Mark Allan

Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel is more than a mere prelude to mightier fare, being brilliant, bold, and virtuosic. That 14th-century lord of misrule is brought to vivid life by the composer. After the strings’ gentle ‘once upon a time’ opening – strictly matter of fact in Rafael Payare’s phrasing – Till peeped round the pantomime curtain with his theme on solo horn and his adventures began. Each was neatly characterised and deftly executed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra players, with Payare cueing them all with precision. A conductor is sometimes a traffic policeman, the great example being perhaps the late Lorin Maazel, so demonstrative in letting each section or soloist know exactly when they should proceed. This particular piece hits rush hour when Strauss’ invention becomes more exuberant, and there was temporary traffic congestion as some lines struggled to find the right lane in terms of relative audibility. But that is always a hazard in the Barbican, and for the most part this was a stirring account of Till’s rumbustious life right up until the heavy brass announced his summary execution. Solo horn, clarinet and lead violin each deserved the acknowledgment the conductor – and audience – gave them.

Berg’s Seven Early Songs were culled from the hundred or so examples the composer wrote before and during his apprenticeship with Schoenberg, variously set down between 1905 and 1908. The orchestral version though is from 1928, so we hear the mature master helping out the novice with a rich and varied backdrop to his youthful inspirations. Various sources suggest we can hear the influence of Brahms, Debussy, Mahler, Wolf and Puccini(!) here, but somehow it all comes out sounding like Bergian expressionism, if embryonic at times. The superb soloist was German soprano Dorothea Röschmann, no less. This was quite a cycle to choose for what was her debut with the BBCSO, though she did win an award for her 2015 disc containing the piano version. It sounded like her ideal calling card (she needed no score), for she was completely inside the idiom from the outset, her diction suggesting she had come to regale the audience with some of her favourite German poems, as much as songs. She has a soaring silvery line when needed (she is a famous Marschallin), which in Nacht blossomed rapturously at the opening of its second stanza with the line Weites Wunderland ist aufgetan. In fact that phrase “A boundless Wonderland is revealed” could serve as a description of her singing at its best, and even of these Berg songs, harbingers of a new world of vocal expression.

The new world Shostakovich grew up in was the Russian Revolution and ensuing Soviet state in which citizens were required to acknowledge that things were always getting better for everybody. (Hence the bitterly ironic toast among incautious dissidents, “Let’s hope things don’t get any better”.) His Fifth Symphony is clear and classical in form, and can be read as a straightforward darkness-to-light piece, with fierce minor key struggles yielding at the close to a triumphant D major apotheosis. If one had read nothing at all about the context of this great work, is not that how it would sound? That was how it was presented here, and with considerable success.

The score has Allegro non troppo for parts of the outer movements but Payare was surely closer to Allegro molto both times. And why not? The score can take it and it is very effective when the players respond as well as they did here. Even at such swift tempi the BBCSO were precise and dynamic – no traffic accidents here. In the first movement the violins were immaculate in the exposed leaps of the second subject, and the ensuing Allegretto was launched with terrific bite by the lower strings. In the Largo, Payare was unerring in pacing and balance, such that the music formed a single great arc, with successive entries building towards the xylophone-capped climax with compelling eloquence. With not even the slightest of pauses the finale burst in and progressed inexorably to that D major coda heralding the great Socialist dawn – unless it is making some more covert ironic statement. Whatever the final destination of the Fifth, Payare and the BBC players were excellent guides, and they – and Dorothea Röschmann – will be worth catching when the BBC broadcasts this concert later on.