Wednesday evening’s concert opened with the first of two posthumous premières this season from the late John Tavener, described as “England’s great musical mystic”. The work, entitled Gnosis (Spiritual Knowledge), was a compact, 12 minute meditation for strings, percussion, solo mezzo-soprano (Sarah Connolly) and alto flute (Michael Cox). The text was drawn from several different religions – Sat (Being), Chit (Consciousness), Ananda (Bliss), Jesu (Jesus), La illaha illallah (There is no god but God).

The stiller, more meditative passages were richly interpreted by Connolly, who communicated a sense of pathos and intensity from the disparate text, making the stream of consciousness meaningful. These moments of plaintive mystical ecstasy, typical of Tavener, were interrupted by violent string passages, the last of these interruptions being a 14-part canon over a drone. For a short piece, the changes in mood were frequent and it felt, at times, more like a series of sketches or a blueprint for a larger composition. The most startling moment came right at the end when the strings unexpectedly burst into the main theme from the finale of Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 17, K453, eliciting ripples of surprised laughter from the audience. Tavener's respect for Mozart is widely known; he felt that The Magic Flute was the only opera that “transcended Western tradition”, yet I think it would be hard to see this brief coda as anything other than whimsical, regardless of the sincerity of Tavener's intent. It was, overall, an engaging and interesting work that sythesised some of the most popular traits of Tavener's compositions whilst remaining surprising. However it did not quite possess the special late-style aura that inhabits the late String Quartets of Beethoven or Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs.

Jiří Bělohlávek © Petra Hajska
Jiří Bělohlávek
© Petra Hajska

Isabelle Faust then took to the stage to perform Bartók's Violin Concerto no. 2, a work she is closely associated with, having released a critically-acclaimed recording last year. Feeling as though he wished to be taken more seriously, this concerto was Bartók's attempt to engage with serialism and “out Schoenberg, Schoenberg”. However, the piece only ever flirts with twelve-tone technique, it was written under the threat of fascism in 1937-38, hence, it is also a nationalistic piece infused with typical Bartókian employment of folk melodies and rhythms. The skill and wonder of this piece is that these two competing idioms: folk music and serialism do not sound incongruous.

Faust's passion for the work was evident, and her performance was absorbing. The complex lines were unravelled with ease and confidence, and the interplay with the orchestra was alert and energised. As a piece, it has a very rhapsodic feel, with new ideas appearing one after the other, posing an inevitable challenge to make sure the rhapsody does not feel like randomness. Faust and the BBC SO, under the baton of Jiří Bělohlávek, made perfect sense of the work, particularly in the haunting theme-and-variations of the second movement. Faust's encore, the Sarabande from Bach's Partita no.1, was even more special. The Royal Albert Hall is amongst the last venues in London where you are likely to attend a recital of Bach for solo violin, however, there was poignancy to witness the glorious tones of Faust's Stradivarius violin filling the vast, silent space.

After serving as skilled accompanists during the first half, the BBC SO had the chance to show their muscle after the interval, when they returned to play Shostakovich's Symphony no. 10 in E minor, a violent and disturbing depiction of Stalin's Russia. The strings should be commended for the warm yet menacing tone they conjured in the slow-burning first movement. It was the darker, more intimate moments overall that Bělohlávek excelled in, eliciting some poignant solos from the woodwinds. Whilst the playing was tight in the more furious second and fourth movements, coming at the end of such an intense programme I was yearning for the orchestra to let go and attack more, and inhabit a world miles away from Tavener's “spirtiual knowledge”.