On Sunday at the Barbican, the LSO presented a moving tribute to Peter Maxwell Davies with the première of his tenth symphony. A rich and dark work, it encapsulated many of Maxwell Davies’ compositional preoccupations throughout his long career. The LSO gave it a strong and passionate performance, ably assisted by the London Symphony Chorus and baritone Markus Butter,a nd conducted by Antonio Pappano. Earlier in the program we were treated to a rousing rendition of Edward Elgar’s overture In the South and Maxim Vengerov’s vigorous and impassioned performance of Benjamin Britten’s too-rarely-performed Violin Concerto.
In the South is a vibrant and wide-ranging tone poem evoking the Italian region of Liguria, where Elgar spent a winter and was deeply inspired by its landscape and history. The muscular opening and much of the material that follows is reminiscent of Richard Strauss in its brash confidence and rich palette of colors. Other sections evoke the skittering fantasy of Mendelssohn in his Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hebrides Overture mode, and of course there are the nobly beautiful melodies so characteristic of Elgar. It was an enjoyable work that perhaps overstayed its welcome a bit by the end. The orchestra played it energetically and colourfully, though the strings at times bordered on stridency in the aggressive Straussian passages.
With the exception of the centenary, the Britten Violin Concerto, as far as I am aware, is not frequently performed, and as soon as it began I wondered why that is. It’s a captivating piece, full of colour, beautiful melodies, playfulness, understatedly masterful orchestration, and an impressively virtuosic solo part. The first movement glowed with lyricism in Vengerov’s gorgeous rendition. The second movement is a wild, almost Shostakovich-like scherzo, and most fully displays Britten’s orchestrational talents. The third movement, a Passacaglia, unfortunately clarified why this work is not performed more often. After the brilliant first two movements and a witty solo cadenza, it was a ponderous and pedantic close to the work. I overheard a fellow audience member comment during the interval “I loved the first two movements, but the Passacaglia doth protest too much.” I couldn’t have put it any better.
Maxwell Davies’ Symphony no. 10: Alla recera di Borromini is a relentlessly dark work. There are different shades and textures of darkness, from the lugubrious first movement, to the jaunty but sinister second movement, to the quiet, nearly tonal, but still darkly hued a cappella choir ending. Scored for a huge orchestra, chorus and baritone soloist, the darkness was heightened by the prominence of the lowest instruments: tuba, trombones, contrabassoons, bass clarinet, and even the rare contrabass clarinet. Based on the life and work of the Italian baroque architect Francesco Borromini, it is almost an oratorio, with the baritone soloist playing a highly dramatic role. The first text in the work is an anonymous sonnet lambasting Borromini’s work and character, a sign of the struggles he faced, and that ultimately led him to take his own life. The subsequent texts include Borromini’s description of his own work; his last testament, in which he describes in detail his suicide attempt; and a sonnet of tender resignation by the poet Giacomo Leopardi. It was a moving and effective collection of texts, vividly depicting both Borromini’s tortured soul, and his soaring architecture. Baritone Markus Butter delivered it with great dramatic commitment, fully embodying Borromini like a character in an opera, while the chorus backed him up with dramatic delivery, precise enunciation and a richly blended sound.
Perhaps this would have run counter to Maxwell Davies’ conception, but I thought the work could have been more dramatically effective had there been some contrast to the relentless darkness of it. It was very passionate and moving, but it felt a bit as if we were joining in during the final act, the tragic culmination of a longer story, most of which we did not get to hear. What of Borromini’s earlier life, his successes, his loves, his hopes and dreams? Without that to set it up, the unremitting tragedy had less impact than it might have. My only problem, then, with this beautiful, rich, ambitious work for enormous forces is that it felt too small in scale: a four-movement symphony longing to be a four-act opera. Or perhaps Maxwell Davies’ entire illustrious career was the first part of the story and this was indeed the grand culmination. He came up on stage to bow afterward, beaming widely as he received a standing ovation from the audience.
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