My second BBC Symphony Orchestra concert in a week and on the evidence of both evenings the orchestra is going through something of a golden period. Everything about their performances now seems to be full of energy and musicality. In this concert, conducted by Simone Young, featuring works by Hungarians, the colour and virtuosity of both pieces was presented with extra tingle factor.
Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra is one the composers most popular compositions. Composed at the very end of his life when the composer was struggling with his health, and adapting to a new life in the USA, with the financial difficulties of being a new immigrant. Not a well-known figure outside of Europe, Bartók, grateful with the commission from Serge Koussevitzky, decided that he needed to adopt a more broadly approachable style, as he also did in his Third Piano Concerto, to make an impression on his new audience, but also to leave a legacy for his wife. So, the Concerto for Orchestra is a work of direct appeal, deceptively simple in its use of the folk idioms that, by this point in in his career, had become deliciously marinated into Bartók’s style.
In this clear and rhythmically precise performance, the mysterious depths of the first movement were wonderfully presented and the gradual opening out to the Allegro vivace was spot on. The uncertain and moody nature of the movement was captured well, with characterful solo woodwind playing illuminating the slower music. The witty second movement is a rare example of humour in Bartók’s music. Rhythmical playfulness well caught without emphasis on demonstrating technical wizardry in the music. In the intense and dramatic Elegia third movement, Young’s choice of tempi and gradation of climaxes was impressive. Likewise, in the Intermezzo interrotto that followed, with its raucous central section which famously takes the micky out Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Young’s choice of very fast tempos in the finale was risky, because it could have lead to messiness in the scurrying string writing. However, there was a wonderful zest and accuracy in the playing here which rounded off an exceptional performance with a bang.
Péter Eötvös twelfth work for stage, Senza sangue, was given its first UK performance after the interval. A work intended to be performed on stage as a prequel to Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle, it has a similar darkness in its interrogation of obsession in relationships and the dangers of delving into the past and not living for the present. Ambivalence of meaning underpins both works and makes them more than the sum of their parts.
In Senza sangue, Eötvös has drawn a man and a woman who had previously met fifty years earlier, when the man had been involved in murdering her father in front of her. However, the man had spared her life. Both characters had suffered immeasurably because of this incident and the opera has them unpicking the past and then finally going off to a hotel together. What happened in that hotel room is left for the audience to imagine, but the long final orchestral passage after they have left the stage seems to indicate more violence rather than any form of resolution.
The opera was presented very well in concert format as, rather like Bluebeard's Castle, the scenario is not inherently dramatic. The two soloists were impressive. Russell Braun has performed the work from its première and was thoroughly convincing vocally and in his acting. Albane Carrère, in a role written for Anne Sofie von Otter, was also vocally secure, but as a young woman it required an oddly reverse suspension of disbelief to see her as a woman of over sixty – usually in opera it is women of nearly sixty playing teenagers. One senses that the gravitas and character that von Otter brought to the role would have added another dimension to proceedings. The work is however not just about the soloists and the bulk of the drama is carried by the orchestra. Young had clearly prepared the BBCSO very well, because the razor sharp playing from all departments of this colourfully written score, was given its full due.
Contemporary opera still struggles to find a place in the repertoire, but on the evidence of the number of outing Senza sangue has notched up already and this haunting performance of the work, maybe this opera will not be tucked away in a music library gathering dust.
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