Urban landscape is a constant reminder of what human beings have created, yet like the natural world it too is constantly changing, a victim of the whims of planners, the ravages of war and natural decay. Judith Weir, in her five-movement motet about London, Concrete, takes for her inspiration the story of how this city has evolved, using the building material as a metaphor for the mingling of old and new. Words from the past, delivered by a speaker and mixed chorus, are interwoven into the fabric of the score. What moved me especially in this BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Sakari Oramo, marking the 40th anniversary of the construction of the Barbican Centre, were references which had an extraordinary topical reference to events elsewhere: “The whole city in dreadful flames”, “London was but is no more” and the significance of the Latin word “Resurgam” with which the work concludes (“I will arise”). Taken from the ruins of the old house of God, destroyed in the Great Fire, this is the defiant and hope-inducing statement carved into a single brick of Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. 

Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC SO
© Mark Allan | BBC

Weir’s work is complex, dense and multi-layered, with overwhelmingly astringent sounds from a large orchestra, a side drum carrying militaristic overtones and tubular bells highlighting the chilling mood. Repeated rough slides from the strings and lacerating chords from the brass created scenes of an orchestral wasteland. Oramo and his forces laid bare the emotionally bleak content without persuading me of the overall structural cohesion of the piece.

Non-English interpreters of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor have a tough time meeting expectations. The melancholy hangs heavy, memories of World War 1 looming in the ghostly background. As the composer himself wrote, “Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away, never to return.” At the same time the soloist needs a strong personality to project the vast range of moods and colours, not least the heroic undertones. The young Finnish cellist Senja Rummukainen approached the work in an entirely unsentimental way, relishing the many tender moments, especially in the Adagio, but with little power and dramatic awareness elsewhere. It was all tastefully done, but where was the heart, where was the soul? In the somewhat robust orchestral accompaniment with dominant brass, Oramo didn’t always succeed in matching his soloist, his strong rays of summer sunshine set against her pale winter sunlight.

Senja Rummukainen, Sakari Oramo and the BBC SO
© Mark Allan | BBC

It was good to hear the entire Daphnis et Chloé ballet, rather than the three short movements that make up the popular Second Suite. The BBCSO was on sparkling, scintillating form, with a clutch of instrumental solos to delight the ear. Oramo revealed an instinctive feel for what Ravel termed his symphonie chorégraphique, caressing the textures lovingly, believing in every note of this magnificently diaphanous score, each episode in this expansive hour-long realisation keenly characterised. Numerous felicities in the playing deserve mention: the Danse grotesque de Dorcon suitably shrill and off-centre, with cackles from the lower brass; the rustling of the silky strings set against the exquisite flute solo and high horn in Danse lente et mystérieuse; a quite unexpectedly awe-inspiring Danse guerrière, like some warlike visitor from Holst’s Mars; the mouth-watering interplay of strings and fleet-footed woodwind in the Danse suppliante de Chloé. From the start of this vast musical fresco, the BBC Symphony Chorus provided colour and nuance, culminating in the bacchanalian ecstasy of the Danse générale.

“Brutalism and beauty collide” was how an introductory programme note described the choreography of the evening. For obvious reasons, beauty is what I wanted to remain uppermost in my mind.

***11