Saturday saw the BBC Symphony Orchestra open their 2013/14 season with an evening of firsts. Not only was this Sakari Oramo’s first Barbican season concert as Chief Conductor, but the programme placed a première by leading “spectral” composer Tristan Murail alongside Shostakovich’s First Piano Concerto and Mahler’s First Symphony.

Sakari Oramo © Jan Olav Wedin
Sakari Oramo
© Jan Olav Wedin

A BBC co-commission, Tristan Murail’s Reflections/Reflets is comprised of two independent character pieces. The reflections of the work’s title are those of things past. “Nuages” from Debussy’s Images was a source of inspiration for the first movement, “Spleen/Quand le ciel bas et lourd...”: not only in terms of the choice of poem, but the material too (Debussy’s woodwind melody becomes a progression of chords). The movement encapsulates the dark melancholy of Baudelaire’s poem, complete with yearning strings, piano rumblings and moody low brass. The poem’s sense of claustrophobia is furthered by the tuning of the third wind parts a quarter-tone flat, lending an air of hopelessness to sinking duet passages in flute and trumpet. Even in the woodwind interlude when the pulse is slowed, Sakari Oramo managed to sustain the tension to hypnotic effect. “Spleen” has a clearly defined narrative arc, building towards the outburst of pealing bells found in the fourth stanza of the poem. The bells are actually tuned to the same spectrum as Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuous plango, vivos voco in an act of homage to the late composer and friend. The resonant bells are pitted against icy strings, formidable low trombone and woodwind outcries, before retreating into an ambiguous chord upon which the movement ends.

The second movement, “High Voltage/Haute tension”, is a musical feu d’artifice in the model of Debussy and Stravinsky. The opening snare trill and pizzicato snaps create an air of restlessness, with fragmented utterances conveying a sense of pent-up energy. The movement is directed towards the gradual synthesis of a spectrum based upon G in a musical oasis at its centre. Beginning with a contrabass tremolo on this fundamental note, the pulsating drum drives towards the realisation of this pure chord as the ensemble gradually casts off elements outside this harmonic region. Although the idyll is soon dissipated as the dissonant elements mount up once again, the end of the piece sees energy reserves gathered in an effort to regain this inner section. Oramo maintained a sense of energy throughout both movements, and the BBC SO mostly responded well to the carefully balanced textures demanded by Murail’s delicate orchestration.

Shostakovich’s Concerto in C minor for piano, trumpet and strings is known for its witticisms and irony. However, I felt that this sense of tongue-in-cheek humour was lost in Olli Mustonen’s performance. Mustonen produced a hard-edged sound coupled with flamboyant gestures; although this throwaway approach worked well at a few points, it too often came across heavy-handed (with a fair number of smudged notes). The BBC SO strings played with a lightness which often jarred with Mustonen’s sound, and often sounded tentative by comparison. However, their playing in the interlude before the trumpet entry in the second movement was meltingly gorgeous. Perhaps the most worrying thing about this performance was that I felt more enamoured with the trumpet than the piano: although placed on equal footing in the work’s title, the piano takes precedence while the trumpet is largely limited to interjections. Sergei Nakariakov lent a cool, detached air with a touch of melancholy to his solos throughout the concerto – a welcome counterpart to Mustonen.

Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 saw the mettle of the BBC SO truly tested, although the orchestra didn’t emerge entirely unscathed. The exposed textures of the first movement’s introduction saw some rough edges, with ensemble issues in the woodwind calls and horn duet passages. It quickly became apparent that this would be Mahler for the big moments: the ear-splitting trumpet fanfares in the recapitulation of the first movement were just a taste of what was to come in the turbulent finale. More dynamic gradation throughout certainly have been more effective, and the tendency to embrace every climax failed to present a coherent vision for the sprawling last movement. As a result, many of the symphony’s quieter passages felt lacking in intensity. There were some special moments: flautist Daniel Pailthorpe’s solos were infallibly beautiful, and the string sound in the Ländler sections of the second movement was rich and rustic. However, there was a fair amount of unpolished playing for my liking: the tuba entry in the third movement shattered the hush of the canon, and the brass certainly suffered towards the end of the fourth movement.

Although the BBC SO and Oramo made a strong case for the Murail première, I found the rest of the concert more mixed. The expectations were high for this musical match, and I’m sure that the partnership will flourish. But for the moment, conductor and orchestra need to spend more time getting to know one another.

***11