Sakari Oramo’s first season as Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is now well under way, and Wednesday night’s concert at the Barbican demonstrated his musical intelligence not only in performance but also in programming. A new work by Colin Matthews, Traces Remain, explores the relationship between harmony’s tonal past and its atonal present through a network of quotations; similarly, Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra finds a voice for the newly-chromatic valved horn, but one proudly indebted to the instrument’s outdoor, signalling history. Though it may seem an odd choice, Oramo never allowed Beethoven’s monumental third symphony, the Eroica, to rest on its laurels. Rather, it was an Eroica for the modern day, saturated with the traces of the end result of Beethoven’s savage dissonances and rhythmic dislocations. Curiously, it was this latter work, rather than the new commission, that shone as the highlight of the programme. Too clever by half, Matthews’ myriad tonal quotations stalled rather than invigorated the music, and an appealingly individual compositional voice was all but lost under references that were all too explicit.

Sakari Oramo © Jan Olav Wedin
Sakari Oramo
© Jan Olav Wedin
Based on a collection of essays by Charles Nicholl and particularly on Nicholl’s lines “the sudden presence, the glimpse behind the curtain, the episode measured in minutes and preserved across the centuries”, Traces Remain is based on the sketched remains of lost works. The references range from Jacobean song through to Schoenberg’s lost orchestration of Beethoven’s Adelaïde, Sibelius’ Eighth Symphony, and an unused sketch for Mahler’s Tenth, each appearing like a flickering candle before being abruptly snuffed out by uncompromising gales of Matthews. This, then, is an essay not necessary in nihilism, in despair at the death of possibility, but an attempt to envision a new life for these fragments of crystallised potential through the mediation of a powerfully modern sensibility – whose, then, better than Matthews’?

Comprising three sections, Traces Remain starts well. After an electric shock from the orchestra, falling gestures usher in an unstable and uncanny section of melodic flux in which familiar orchestrations appear as if in kaleidoscope, Matthews’s extraordinary ear for harmonic colour transfiguring Mahler’s soundworld, now Sibelius’ oversaturated strings and dark brass, now Messiaen’s swirling celesta and fearsome chorales into something wholly original. Colours glisten on even quavers like sunlight on a stream; never do we linger with one composer long enough for it to stop being fundamentally, joyously individual, pure Matthews.

Indeed, it is these moments, moments where Matthews’ voice is clearly identifiable, which work best; a brief section in the middle and the conclusion are welcome respite from what comes between. For after such subtle compositional trickery, the overlong quotations of tonal music are jarring and upset the music’s flow. Beethoven’s Adelaïde, transformed into a mock jazz standard by soprano saxophone, sits upon a bed of tonal woodwinds whilst strings whisper dissonant subversion; Ives told this joke much better a century ago, and a direct quotation of Mahler in the strings, while lovely, is still Mahler, not Matthews, regardless of what surrounds it. Disintegration rather than integration is the result of this experiment; a real shame, given the excellent work that started the piece.

Prefacing this, the soloists in Schumann’s Konzertstück (drawn from members of the BBC SO horn section) engaged well with the reminiscences of the hunting horn that saturate this otherwise wholly Romantic work. From an absolutely blazing opening fanfare, it was clear Martin Owen and this crack team were taking no prisoners. Throughout, from orchestra and soloists alike, this was brilliant, characterful playing, with the second movement in particular standing out as an oasis of calm between the outer movements’ hair-raising virtuosity. For all the brilliance of his inspiration, Schumann did not really understand the horn; phrases are written without the lungs particularly in mind and the top note is a full major third above the horn’s accepted range. As such, a few mistakes are par for the course, and though not technically perfect, this was a great performance of a really excellent choice of curtain-raiser.

It was the Eroica that stood out above all else in this concert, however. Oramo and the musicians demonstrated a rare rapport, all parties involved working towards a clear and convincing goal. Oramo’s conducting always emphasised the long line before anything else, but this was about more than just beauty; never was the sense of immediacy, of power and urgency, sacrificed on the altar of a uniformly beautiful sound, and this elevated the performance to being not just another Eroica but one that sounded truly modern, apt to share a podium with the newest of new works. Accents were gloriously emphatic, Beethoven’s harrowing dissonances painfully, ecstatically elongated by the BBCSO and their Principal Conductor. Although it could not quite assuage the disappointment of the Matthews, this was a groundbreaking Eroica, and an excellent advert for Oramo’s tenure.