This concert began with that rare thing in the Barbican Hall – a true pianissimo, as the cellos emerged from the threshold of audibility, their bow movements seen fractionally before they were heard, to open Peteris Vasks’s Cantabile for Strings of 1979. The magic continued for the rest of this iridescent eight minute work, from its unison opening passages, through the elaboration of its dense and glowing polyphony, with soaring and shining melodic lines. Vasks saw it as a hymn to nature, but its ecstatic quality was more spiritual than pastoral, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s string section was on glowing form throughout.

Helen Vollam performs Gavin Higgins' <i>The Book of Miracles</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
Helen Vollam performs Gavin Higgins' The Book of Miracles
© BBC | Mark Allan

The BBCSO has commissioned a series of concertos for its principals, and launching these was the premiere of a new Trombone Concerto from young British composer Gavin Higgins, a rising star who also has a Royal Opera House premiere this month. The work’s title is The Book of Miracles in reference to a recently discovered 16th-century German manuscript containing biblical stories and filled with images of miraculous signs and natural catastrophes. Thus the work has four sections entitled Comet, Parhelia, Eclipse (cadenza) and Revelation.

I haven’t heard a live performance of a concerto for this instrument before, so I mused what the piece might be like. I assumed the orchestration would recall Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, quite large, nothing exotic, and above all no trombones. I’ll spare you the rest, for right there is why Higgins is an established high-profile composer, and I am a mere commentator. Not only does he have quite an exotic orchestral line up, but one with trombones, which feature in some of the most striking moments. Especially attractive was a compelling moment in the first movement of conversation between the orchestral trombones and the soloist – or of colloquy maybe, in the sense of a gathering of the like-minded for religious debate, given the Book of Miracles origin. For all the portentousness that suggests, Higgins never forgets that the concerto form has a playful element, at least some of the time in a fascinating work which has plenty of variety within its sense of unity.

The orchestral writing is often striking, literally so in the use of ringing metallic percussion. The solo part, often stentorian and declamatory as we expect from a trombone, was also lyrical, and virtuosic in its frequent demands for flexibility and fun (lip trills, glissandi). It never became high-wire act virtuosity, perhaps because Helen Vollam’s amazing playing seemed to make light of any difficulties. Her orchestral colleagues were enthusiastic in their welcome before she had played a note, and more so after the performance. As was a supporters’ club of about a dozen (friends and family?) who leapt to their feet. That supporters’ club increased its membership a hundredfold last night.

Shostakovich had completed two of the three movements of his Fourth Symphony in 1936 when the notorious Pravda article appeared condemning his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, initiating the crackdown against such nasty modernism in Soviet art. Pausing only to pack the suitcase for Siberia, the composer completed that last movement, but the premiere was postponed – for 25 years.

The Fourth is often a favourite of Shostakovich lovers, for it contains some of his best music, which is not quite the same as saying it his best symphony. It his most Mahlerian work, but the many marvellous episodes never quite cohere with the sort of narrative inevitability of his Austrian predecessor. It must be a challenge for the conductor to pace each section, transition between them, grade the dynamics and mould the phrasing, all in a way which holds the audience’s attention over its 65 minutes.

Alexander Vedernikov was expert in marshalling his army of players – 125 of them are nominally required, and Klemperer was given a sharp reply when he asked the composer if he could use four flutes not six. The early quieter sections in the first movement sometimes saw the tension sag, though that might have been the effect of the conductor sometimes having his head in the score. For the most part the work had its invariable gripping and eventually shattering impact. There were several climaxes that became an apocalyptic assault on the audience, exaggerated by the hardening effect of the Barbican acoustic. This is part of the work’s aesthetic, so there is no point in holding back, and Vedernikov didn’t. But many quieter lyrical episodes made their mark too, especially those for the wonderful solo bassoon of Nina Ashton, and the waltz passage for the strings in the finale. The short Scherzo, a quite perfect movement, was perfectly performed, right up to that intriguing ‘tick-tock’ percussion coda which would reappear in the Second Cello Concerto and the Fifteenth symphony. Each movement ends quietly in fact, the last the most enigmatic of them all.

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