Last night’s BBCSO concert at the Barbican proved to be a fractured affair, mostly for no fault of its own. The main cause for this was the sad abandonment of the first performance of Kevin Volan's new work The Mountains That Left, due to the soprano soloist being unwell. In its place, at very short notice, the BBC Singers whose 90th birthday it was, stepped in to perform three works from their vast repertoire. As a result the flow of the concert lacked the cohesion that was originally intended, but it was still a stimulating event.

Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall © BBC/Mark Allan
Andrew Litton and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at Barbican Hall
© BBC/Mark Allan
The evening kicked off with a razor sharp performance of John Adams 2003 orchestral showpiece My Father Knew Charles Ives. For American conductor Andrew Litton, this was music that suits his dynamic, precise, dancelike approach to a tee. The obvious link with the Charles Ives soon became apparent, both in the playful title and in the musical language, particularly in the first movement Concord. Like his older countryman, Adams uses a layering of musical themes and textures in this movement, but in his hands the overall effect is very different. Adams is a tidy composer, he is happiest when making some sense out of the chaos of his own creation. He does this with repetitive rhythmic patterns and clear orchestral textures, so that whatever he throws at his musical structure by way of dance tunes, band tunes, hymns and folksongs, there is never a sense of danger as there can be in Ives. But then Adams is a composer with a mission to entertain, whereas Ives was interested in the biggest philosophical issues.  

We then had a quick change, with the birthday boys and girls of the BBC Singers quite appropriately taking centre stage. The first offering was Vertue by the new Master of the King's Music, Judith Weir. Written in her intentionally understated style where clarity of word setting holds sway, the ecstatic verse of George Herbert seemed at times underplayed, despite a lovingly accurate performance.

Bob Chilcott and the BBC Singers in their 90th birthday concert at St Giles’ Cripplegate © BBC/Mark Allan
Bob Chilcott and the BBC Singers in their 90th birthday concert at St Giles’ Cripplegate
© BBC/Mark Allan
The more obvious charms of John Tavener’s popular Song for Athene were beautifully restrained, bringing out the purity of its writing rather than its emotional connotations connected to its performance at Princess Diana’s funeral. And finally we were treated to a consummate performance of Britten’s Hymn to St Ceclia, a work from his golden period in the early 1940s. The freshness of the performance emphasised the strength of Britten’s invention in this work, which he often struggled to reproduce in later works.   

The BBC Singers joined the BBCSO in the final work on the programme, Charles Ives' ground-breaking Fourth Symphony. For Ives the wealthy businessman, popular success was of little relevance financially or emotionally and therefore this work, written between 1909 – 16, still sounds way ahead of its time. It is his perhaps most ambitious and cogent exploration of orchestral sonorities and philosophical themes.

In this performance Andrew Litton and the BBCSO were joined by the BBC Singers and a second conductor, David Hill. The complexity of the textures, especially in the 2nd and 4th movements, was stunningly created, with so much of the detail brought out exactly where it should be. Only the rather deadpan acoustic of the Barbican Hall seemed to constrain at times the overwhelming sounds produced by the orchestra. The anarchy of the 2nd movement with the depiction of ever increasing chaos was terrifying and the weirdly conventional awkward harmonies of the 3rd movement didn’t seem out of place as it can do, but part of the whole grand scheme of the piece.

****1