Premiered at the Barbican in 1995, The Rose Lake proved to be Sir Michael Tippett’s swansong. Inspired not by the Barbican Centre’s own body of not-so-rosy, fountain-filled water but by a natural wonder the composer visited in Senegal, this half-hour tone poem is one of his most ravishing works, harking back to the lyricism of The Midsummer Marriage while marked out in the mosaic-like juxtaposition of different musics that characterised his mature style. At its heart is song, with lush, elaborate melodies seeming to well up from the glistening waters of the lake – the music is not so much illustrative as evocative and its form works just as well appreciated as a set of orchestral variations. The world premiere 24 years ago had been entrusted to Sir Colin Davis, but it was Sir Andrew Davis who the same year gave the work its Canadian premiere with his Toronto orchestra and who here brought it back to the place of its birth with the orchestra of which he is conductor laureate, the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Sir Andrew Davis © Lucas Dawson
Sir Andrew Davis
© Lucas Dawson

Davis A’s association with Tippett’s music is second to none and The Rose Lake fairly glistened in his hands: the twinkling of light from the upper woodwind, the dappled colours of harp and flutter-tonguing clarinet, and above it all the ecstatic song that rises up from the six (or in this case seven) horns and is taken over by the unison strings. And one must not forget the rototoms, the expansive array of tuned drum heads, athletically played by two of the orchestra’s percussion section as they literally had to sprint up and down their three octaves, and which give Tippett’s score its distinctive pointillist colouring. With the arrival this week of a new biography of the composer there has been much talk and recognition of how his reputation has slumped since his death in 1998, but with performances such as this there’s hope that a justifiable revival is already underway.

How to follow The Rose Lake? In this case, two more examples of orchestral works that play with light and shade. Lisa Batiashvili was the soloist entrusted to spin the ecstatic melodic lines of Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, which she did with both élan and a songful, expressive breadth. The orchestral writing is another glorious tapestry of lights, half-lights and rapturous harmonies, and Davis drew as much detail out of it is he could without it enveloping the solo part – the work emerged, as it surely should, less like a combative concerto than as an extended rhapsody with obbligato violin.

Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande has always lent itself to voice-free adaptation for the concert hall, with its copious orchestral interludes that can be knitted together to form a seamless expanse of music. The latest to extract a suite for this purpose, following on from the examples of Erich Leinsdorf and Marius Constant which have both gained some currency, is the French conductor Alain Altinoglu. He eschews some of the full stops and semi-colons that mark out the different acts in the original score to create a tone poem that may lose a little of the more potent music but gains in the sense of continuity it brings and in the way it focuses on the organic evolution of its motifs. Atmosphere and colour were again to the fore in this performance, through which Davis and his orchestra seemed to convey the depth and mysteries of the opera, its insoluble tragedies, in the form, like the works that preceded it in this scintillating, beautifully played programme, of another kind of song without words.

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