The BBC Symphony Orchestra once again continued to offer its audience adventurous programming, with this evening’s London première of Brett Dean’s trumpet concerto Dramatic Personae, and Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 3 in C minor, which is certainly not heard enough in concert halls. Jukka-Pekka Saraste also lead the orchestra in a performance of Berlioz’s beautiful Roméo et Juliette (“Romeo alone”). The number of vacant seats at the Barbican surprised me, as it is precisely this kind of programming that gets the heart of many a music-lover racing.

Håkan Hardenberger © Marco Borggreve
Håkan Hardenberger
© Marco Borggreve

The Berlioz is a whirlwind of a symphonic piece, and thereby set the tone for tonight’s concert. Its high level of energy and charm was contagious, although unfortunately the performance left something to be desired. At times it was very promising, with beautiful serene strings sweeping the audience away and some very impressive brass. However, the performance was a little too tame overall, and any musical piece that is inspired by Shakespeare’s tale ought to be performed much more passionately.

It almost appeared as if the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jukka-Pekka Saraste had been saving their strengths for what was coming next. The second piece of the evening was Brett Dean’s trumpet concerto Dramatic Personae. Håkan Hardenberger, the Swedish trumpeter for whom the work was composed, gave an astonishing display of everything the trumpet is capable of. In writing the concerto, Dean was inspired by tales of superheroes in films and comics, and the vivid and colourful portrayals of those characters is certainly heard in his dramatic score. According to the programme notes, in the first movement the trumpet is the hero, battling against the orchestra. The cacaphonic orchestral writing, however, made it sound to me as if both the orchestra and the trumpet were heroic, although of course this could also represent the fact that often the bad guys are the most exciting in superhero stories! Hardenberger enlisted the aid of four different mutes in order to make his trumpet sound even more compelling and diverse.

In the second and third movements the orchestra and soloist moved closer together. Four flutes opened the second movement, sounding almost spooky, and soon the trumpet took over. The orchestra sounded like a kind of shadow of the trumpet, playing in its wake, although the excellent performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s musicians impressed even in this more subservient position. Saraste kept a close eye on his orchestra, and as a result their timing was perfect and their performance utterly convincing. With a soloist as impressive as Hardenberger, it can at times be difficult for the orchestra to demand any attention, yet the BBC Symphony did so. 

In the third movement the music came to life even more. Two trumpeters stood on the side of the stage, facing Hardenberger and sounding like recalcitrant echoes. Dean was influenced by the famous scene in Modern Times where Charlie Chaplin accidentally becomes the leader of a group of workers who are striking. This unintentional leadership was perhaps heard most vividly in the strange march, somewhat reminiscent of Schnittke’s Symphony no. 1, that the orchestra suddenly burst into towards the end of the movement. Hardenberger was the undisputed leader, however, managing the virtuoso requirements of the piece so incredibly well.

Prokofiev’s Third is a brazen, clever and overwhelming symphony, drawn from the score of his opera The Fiery Angel. In its four movements, we only find some respite in the second, slow movement, the others are all so intensive and vigorous, keeping you on the edge of your seat. The BBC Symphony Orchestra appeared to have exhausted themselves slightly in their performance of Dean’s trumpet concerto, as the first movement of the Prokofiev lacked some depth and dedication, resulting in some imprecise timing and lack of precision. 

The string section of the orchestra was excellent throughout however, and in particular in the third movement, where almost every string player had their own part to play – creating an atmosphere both eerie and delightful. The fourth and final movement, my personal favourite, finally saw the orchestra at their best again, with the brass section taking the lead in an all-or-nothing performance. Here it finally became clear why Sviatoslav Richter once described the symphony as being “like the end of the world”, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra launching a full-blown orchestral assault on its audience. The unexpected encore of Sibelius’s Scene with Cranes was a beautiful pallet-cleanser, with Stephen Bryant’s violin solo as its star.