There was a time when the name of Franz Schreker was spoken in the same breath as Debussy, Richard Strauss, Mahler and Schoenberg. Despite several decades of neglect, Schreker's style of aesthetic plurality, as heard in the dreamy Nachtstück from his opera Der ferne Klang, reveals a unique compositional voice that is positively dripping with a symbolism and sensuality which remains elusive to neat categorisations. Der ferne Klang explores the tension between the glittering surfaces of fin-de-siècle Vienna and more disturbing Freudian undercurrents as the main character Fritz abandons his betrothed in order to seek a distant sound which haunts him.
Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra displayed an innate sensitivity to Schreker's meticulous orchestration in their account of the extended Act 3 interlude. The orchestra maintained an impressive transparency of sound throughout, especially in the central section of the piece, where Schreker recalls the chaotic juxtaposition of gypsy bands and offstage Venetian ensembles in Act 2. In addition to the welcome foregrounding of celesta and harps, Volkov highlighted the progressive aspects of Schreker's style by offsetting the highly sensual, post-Wagnerian harmonies in the reflective portions of the work with a more spontaneous sense of propulsion, reflecting the main character's psychological plight. The dark hues of the string and wind sections were particularly effective in the almost painfully beautiful closing passage, melting away as Fritz begins to hear the birdsong of the approaching dawn.
If the opening piece circulated within a heady world of dreams, then the première of Nicola LeFanu's new work The Crimson Bird brought the audience into the midst of an all-too-human reality. Based on John Fuller's graphic poem Siege, the piece describes the relationship between a mother and son as it moves from the renewed hope of a baby's presence to the terror of the son's involvement in military conflict and finally his death. LeFanu has created a concertante work which certainly does justice in orchestral terms to the uncompromising directness in Fuller's dramatic narrative; yet despite Rachel Nicholls' unswerving commitment in this performance, the contours of the vocal line, with its many registral displacements, occasionally appeared to obscure the emotional journey of Fuller's poetic language rather than reveal a richer landscape of expression and associations.
The four sections of the work, entitled Vigil, Terror, Lament and Prayer in Fuller's original poem, displayed LeFanu's creative talent for orchestral colour, displayed in the translucent textures of strings, wind and celesta which gently swirled around Nicholls' solo part in the opening stanza, "When the air is cool as silk", the eerie moans heard after the lines "Where the dying are darkened and whimpering/ Like dogs who have been shut out of their lives" and the explosive violence of the second and third sections. In the first of two major climaxes, Nicholls spoke the penultimate stanza of the second section, which describes hospital beds under rubble and "a thigh stump like a burst pomegranate". The sudden switch to speaking voice after the extensive melismatic treatment of previous stanzas certainly succeeded in shocking, and was hammered home by violent interjections from the full orchestra.
In the second half, Volkov directed an energetic and streamlined performance of Rachmaninov's Third Symphony, intent on letting the richness of the composer's harmonic language and orchestral imagination speak unhindered by any over-indulgence in various forms of rubato (idiomatic or otherwise). Despite a curiously present opening, which did not entirely succeed in portraying the hushed, chant-like nature of the symphony's motto, Volkov shaped the subsequent nostalgic theme with a natural momentum. This approach was most successful in the first two movements as a whole, where the profusion of expansive melodic material might easily tempt one to wallow in the beauty of it all.
Volkov followed Rachmaninov's own recorded example by eschewing the first movement exposition repeat and in more specific instances, allowing only brief moments of rubato to affect the overall direction of the melodic lines. Stephen Bryant (violin) and Michael Cox (flute) were particularly beguiling and sultry in their second movement solos, although there were some occasional rhythmic smudges in the transition passages between slow movement and the scherzo section. The last movement continued on the same energy level, yet here Volkov's straighter approach did not always reveal the sparks of wit in Rachmaninov's writing, particularly in the brief bassoon solo before the transition to the fugue, or the tender Wagnerian allusions. The conductor's decision to slam on the brakes at the beginning of the coda risked turning the pastoral innocence of the flute theme into a parody of itself, but Volkov's agenda was soon revealed in the exciting accelerando towards the final orchestral dismissal.
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