The first of three-events entitled “Benjamin at the Barbican” featured UK premières by George Benjamin and Gunther Schuller. Both works were linked by the theme of dreams, its night time association continued obliquely in Debussy’s Nocturnes. There the connective thread ended and the concert closed with Stravinsky’s wartime Symphony in Three Movements. Presiding over the BBC Symphony Orchestra was Oliver Knussen who began the evening with an unscheduled tribute to Peter Maxwell Davies – his own arrangement of Canon in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1971).

Oliver Knussen © Mark Allan | BBC
Oliver Knussen
© Mark Allan | BBC

After a minute’s silence, the evening properly kicked off with Schuller’s Dreamscape, a work from 2012 commissioned for Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary, that came to the composer quite literally in a dream. Whether the exact instrumentation was revealed to him in this reverie is unclear but Schuller took full advantage of Tanglewood’s generosity and amongst the large forces (over a 100 players) the score includes parts for car horn, two sleigh bells and four Chinese opera gongs. Of the three short movements, the riotous first was restless and comic and included a reference to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The second (“Nocturne”) was quietly brooding, while the third (conceived as “Birth-Evolution-Culmination”) writhed its way towards a powerful climax. At about 11 minutes, this vibrant convection revealed a composer with a keen ear for orchestral sonorities with hints of big-band jazz. From the podium it was given clear direction and guided by Knussen’s equally keen ear.

Clear direction was also a hallmark in Debussy’s Nocturnes; an imaginatively-scored triptych from 1899 that includes a wordless chorus for 16 female voices. Under Knussen’s baton “Nuages” felt rather stiff and despite the orchestra’s wonderful blend, everything felt too carefully manicured. Its undeniable polish lacked frisson. By contrast, “Fêtes” was exciting and vividly detailed and the concluding “Sirènes” atmospheric, yet its opulent scoring sounded dry. I suspected the players may have needed more than just clarity of beat to energise them here.

Following the interval came George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song, first performed last year in Amsterdam. It is an attractive 20 minute orchestral song-cycle that sets texts by three poets whose formative years were shaped in Granada. 11th-century Hebrew poems by Samuel ha-Nagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol, (sung in English by Iestyn Davies) were interleaved by two short poems by Gabriel García Lorca (and sung in Spanish by the women of the BBC singers). There’s no doubting Benjamin is a fastidious craftsman, and performances as finely-honed as this brought out many of the work’s distinctive sonorities. A plaintive oboe, delicate violin writing and a well-placed punch from the horns pricked the ear, but most distinctive was Davies whose bronzed tone and impeccable tuning gave further proof of why he seems to be the countertenor of choice for much new repertoire. “And the moon was cut like a D” from “The Gazelle” was exquisitely phrased by him. 

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements is a work also renowned for its distinctive sonorities – coloured, in the first two movements, by piano and then harp. For the first Knussen opted for a daring tempo – its rhetorical opening gestures perhaps thrown away by the perilous speed, yet orchestra and piano (Elizabeth Burley) were razor-sharp in their primitive rhythms. Stravinsky’s sideways glance at 18th-century mannerisms were nicely observed in the Andante, with expressive contributions too from flute and harp. The finale could have had more rhythmic bite and its closing pages, felt exciting rather than thrilling.

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