Christmas seems to start earlier every year, and not just on Oxford Street. This evening, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers presented a concert based around two Christmas themed works – and it is still the middle of November. No broadcast delays to justify the timing, it went out live on Radio 3 (so should be available to listen on demand). Instead, the motivation seems to have been the need to find a home for the UK première of a new work by Brett Dean, The Annunciation, a Christmas oratorio written for the famous Thomanerchor of Leipzig. Short of recreating the observances at the Thomaskirke itself, no programme would fit this work comfortably, so the BBC instead corralled three of the most unprogammable works in the repertoire, in the hope that some logic might emerge.

Josep Pons © Artists Management Company
Josep Pons
© Artists Management Company

The first rarity was Respighi’s Trittico botticelliano. Echoes of the composer’s Roman trilogy can be heard throughout, but it is smaller, shorter and more sentimental, none of which is in its favour. The energetic opening movement recalls “The Pines of the Villa Borghese”, all complex scurrying string textures underpinning melodic lines in the winds. The second movement makes clear why the work was chosen for the programme: It’s a free fantasia on Veni, Veni Emmanuel, elegant but quite conventional. The later movements get more slushy, all swooning, sentimental string writing. Fortunately, conductor Josep Pons was in his element here, giving plenty of emotion but keeping the propulsion going and the structure clear. Pons is Catalan, and has recently been appointed Music Director of Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. This evening’s varied programme certainly showed off his versatility. Not a particularly extrovert performer, but a clear and effective communicator.

Brett Dean writes in the programme that being commissioned by the Leipzig Thomanchor was a daunting prospect. And how! But perhaps he is ideally suited to dealing with the long shadows of history there. As an Australian who spent many decades in Germany, he has been able to absorb the rich musical culture without being dragged into the Oedipal quagmire that stifles many native composers. Dean is clearly aware of the Bach inheritance, and we often hear clear chorale lines cutting through complex textures and musical effects that recall the tone painting of the Passions. But generally he remains his own man, setting an English-language text (by the Australian poet Graeme William Ellis), reducing the orchestra to an eccentrically bass-heavy chamber ensemble, and writing in a freely atonal style. That said, the Christmas theme is always present in the music, however dense or complex it becomes. The work occasionally sounds like a cross between a carol concert and Ligeti’s Requiem. But Dean always presents focussed ideas, however heterogeneous his stylistic sources. The performance was good, but the context far from ideal. Written for liturgical performance, by an all-male choir in a resonant church, this mixed-voice chorus, singing in concert in the notoriously dry and dull Barbican acoustic was never going to do the work justice.

Strauss’ Le bourgeois gentilhomme Suite doesn’t fit easily into any programme: the third misfit of the evening? It is fabulous music though, and far too rarely played, so any excuse is welcome. Strauss often writes for the small ensemble as if it were a larger orchestra, but also often reduces the textures down to chamber dimensions. The reduced string section sounded strained in the tutti passages, and couldn’t invoke the opulence the composer was looking for. Technically, the performance was good, but the range of textures and moods didn’t stretch to the extremes the score demands. Fortunately the performance was redeemed by the soloists. Strauss gives almost everybody a solo at one point or another, and many of them were exceptional. Guest leader Natalie Chee was note-perfect, as was pianist Elizabeth Burley. Honours too to cello soloist Susan Monks, oboist Richard Simpson, and, best of all Alan Thomas and Robert O’Neill, who nailed the trumpet and bass trombone parts. Random instruments for solos perhaps, but on this eccentric programme, nothing would have seemed out of place.