Conductor H.K. Gruber’s visits to the BBC Philharmonic are guaranteed to be unmissable concerts of the season; with unquenchable enthusiasm and pride in the music he programmes, Gruber, (known affectionately to all as “Nali”), always assures a stirring performance.

H.K. Gruber © Johnny Volcano
H.K. Gruber
© Johnny Volcano

The concert opened with Three Interludes (“The Parting”, “Passacaglia” and “The Investiture”) from James MacMillan’s second opera, The Sacrifice. MacMillan’s music has never fully captured my imagination; I have always found that in his orchestral music, choral works or chamber music, one piece sounds very much like the next and, whilst I did enjoy tonight’s extracts from the opera, I was left wanting something more and concluded that to see a performance of the complete opera would be the only way to really experience these three short movements – they are not as substantial in variety as, say, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes. Nonetheless, the BBC Philharmonic gave a convincing account of the three pieces that are effectively a taster-suite for something much more satisfying and wholesome.

Following this, the orchestra were joined by tenor Timothy Robinson and, arguably, Britain’s leading horn soloist, Richard Watkins, for Britten’s 1943 masterpiece, the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Composed for the inimitable Peter Pears and ill-fated horn virtuoso Dennis Brain, the work contains some of Britten’s most evocative writing for reduced forces – a mastery of string writing that I happily suggest belongs to the British tradition of Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams, Holst and others is evident from the start. Following the Prologue for solo horn (instructed to play using natural harmonics), subdued strings clear the path for tenor and horn player to glide over the setting sun of Charles Cotton’s opening pastoral poem; beginning on a treacherous top A flat, Robinson’s descent might have been smoother, but the conviction was there in abundance. There were moments where the stillness of Britten’s music might have been better emphasised by members of the orchestra not rustling in their seats and an absence of the criminal in the stalls whose mobile phone went off not once, but twice – this person was virtually murdered by a thousand glaring eyes, burning a hole in their ego along with a shower of “tuts”. Robinson, professionally unfazed, continued singing with crisp, clear diction and, though the music occasionally seemed out of reach (whether swamped by the strings and horn or the tessitura being a little strained at the top of the voice), a definite understanding of text, music, style and imagination was evident throughout every movement. Richard Watkins’ displayed his incredible technique in a performance of startling variety; every dynamic considered, every phrase perfected to the point of playing from memory.

Closing the concert, a stellar cast of international repute featuring Ian Bostridge, Angelika Kirchschlager, Matthew Best and Neal Davies assembled for Stravinsky’s rarely performed 50-minute epic opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex. Sophocles’ miserable tragedy is sobering reading and yet Stravinsky contributes a glitteringly gaudy score to a Latin text that was prepared at his request.

Beginning with Malcolm Raeburn’s dramatic oration of the Oedipus story, we were introduced to Oedipus himself: Bostridge, whose declamatory technique and affinity for music in the higher tenor register made him the perfect exponent of Sophocles’ tragic anti-hero. Proficient in extended lyrical passages and moments of word-spittingly concise derision were all delivered with expert diction and an assured vocal technique. The poor Jocasta, his wife and mother, has nothing going for her and her desperate demise is assured. Despite this, Angelika Kirchschlager approached the unusually broad vocal line with resonant clarity and precise accuracy whether plunging to the depths of the alto register or soaring upwards towards dramatic soprano heights.

And yet, despite incredible orchestral playing and emphatic direction from Gruber, a severe note of complaint: balance – there wasn’t much. The orchestra frequently overpowered the soloists and minor roles like the Messenger and the Shepherd had no chance – I saw their mouths moving frantically, but heard very little. This was surprising of Gruber, who I thought would have had better control over the orchestra, that the soloists might be heard above Stravinsky’s din. Nonetheless, the performance was passionate on all counts and is to be repeated in Vienna.

Prior to the concert, during the interval and afterwards, the audience were treated to a host of contemporary performances that had little to do with the main musical fare of the evening and distracted from conversation – personally I dislike these events as prior, during and post-concert ought to be a time of preparation and reflection, and to leave a cathartic experience of Britten and Stravinsky only to be bawled at by someone stuffing chunks of lemon into his mouth whilst another writhes on the floor near the bar seems a little unnerving, distasteful and maybe even disrespectful to the musicians and composers who slaved over their art – especially in something as taxing as Oedipus Rex.

****1