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Composer George Benjamin [Photo by Matthew Lloyd courtesy of Askonas Holt]
20 Mar 2016

Nocturnal Visions and Reveries at the Barbican

Nocturnal visions and reveries dominated this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, part of a two-day celebration of the music of George Benjamin which also includes a concert performance of the composer’s opera Written on Skin.

Nocturnal Visions and Reveries at the Barbican

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Composer George Benjamin [Photo by Matthew Lloyd courtesy of Askonas Holt]


The shifting nightscapes were evoked with characteristic precision and transparency by conductor Oliver Knussen, but it was the very real, sometimes violent, physicality of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements which proved most exciting and evocative.

Gunter Schuller’s Dreamscape (2012) is a fantastical, and fun, exploration of poly-rhythms and instrumental colour. The composer, who died in June last year, professed to have received the whole work in a dream — along with the instruction to ‘play musical jokes’ — and, upon waking, to have been able to ‘write down, in both verbal and musical notation, all kinds of shortcuts and abbreviations, a whole 10 minutes of vivid, precise information’. These notations were then ‘fleshed out’ to exploit the quadruple woodwind and brass, two harps, piano, celeste, diverse percussion and large string forces made available to Schuller by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra which commissioned the work.

The Scherzo umoristico e curioso exploded into being like a fire-cracker and proceeded to throw musical scraps and fragments into a riotous mix: razor-edged brass assaults, violent string stabbings, warbling horns, jazz-inflected trumpet fanfares, and a battery of percussive blows and chimes (the six percussionists juggled, among a huge array, sleigh bells, tom-toms, slapstick, four Chinese gongs, bass and drum, marimba, woodblocks, ratchet, triangle, cymbals, bell tree, cowbell, and even a lion’s roar) formed a lunatic nightscape of moon, monsters and magic. In Ivesian fashion, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Yankee Doodle Dandy made an appearance, along with a yell of ‘No!’ from the clarinettist towards the close, before the maelstrom was silenced by an irreverent blast from the contra-bassoon.

After such bawdy frenzy, the Nocturne probed the mysteries of darkness. The atmospheric writing for strings was punctuated by huge outbursts for muted brass which surged then immediately subsided. The contemplative mood continued in Birth-Evolution-Culmination, a compressed study of musical development which grew from unsettling primordial rumblings in the lower strings, by way of emergent melodic pronouncements from the solo cello (Susan Monks), escalating babblings from the xylophone and savage string peroration, to build towards fierce brass flourishes, before the material was startlingly truncated, without ‘resolution’. Knussen relished the score’s technicolour exuberance and etched the diverse material with clarity.

George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song is similarly kaleidoscopic, if more eclectic, being scored for two oboes, four horns, two harps, strings and a percussion ensemble of glockenspiel, vibraphones, gongs and cymbals. The work was written for countertenor Iestyn Davies who, with a potent blend of fluidity and intensity, gave an impressive performance of Benjamin’s settings of two Hebrew poets from the mid-11th century, Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (sung in English versions by Peter Cole), in dialogue with texts by Gabriel Garcia Lorca (in the original Spanish) sung by the female voices of the BBC Singers.

The countertenor’s flamboyant, silky melismatic utterances in ‘The Pen’ were underscored by disturbingly impulsive undercurrents created by intricate string textures and pungent horns; the latter occasionally obscured the voice, though such overpowering was rare in the work as a whole. ‘The Multiple Troubles of Man’ required Davies to call upon the dark colours of his chest voice, while tentative motions from the lower strings and a plaintive oboe solo conveyed unease. The women’s choir made a dramatic contribution to the closing passages of ‘Gazing Through the Night’, intensifying the concentrated dissonances and anticipating the pained harmonies of the climactic fourth movement, ‘From Gacela Del Amor Maravilloso’, in which the choral voices formed a striking wall of sound.

‘The Gazelle’ was notable for the contrast and dialectic created between Davies’s astonishing pure, almost ethereal, vocal tone and the dark revolutions of the lower strings. A fine horn solo and the whispered choral gestures added further to the sense of mystery, as Benjamin juxtaposed two visions of dawn, past and present forming an intriguing palimpsest.

Benjamin’s melodies are strong, and the smooth, sinuous lines perfectly suited Davies who was simultaneously mellifluous and penetrating. Knussen shaped the interactions between solo voice, choir and orchestra with insight, bringing forth moments of brightness and colour, then allowing the motifs to sink back gently into the shifting textures.

Knussen was a model of economy and clarity in Debussy’s Nocturnes, but the conductor focused more on the individual crystalline delicacies of the score than on its overall emotive impact. This approach was apparent from the first bars of Nuages, when the slender, elegant motifs were beautifully defined but any semblance of expansion was instantly quelled. The result was that we could enjoy some fine solos and colloquies from the flute, cello and, especially, cor anglais (Alison Teale), and the clarinet’s melody sang enchantingly about the gentlest of orchestral murmurings. But, the streams of warmth which define the harmonic progressions sometimes lacked strength and dynamism.

Fêtes did conjure more vitality and there was an almost childlike excitement as the array of chattering instrumental outbursts paraded past in a dancing chain, enthralling with their panache and exoticism. With the entry of the horns and side drum, the march built to a thrilling and flamboyant climax, before the parade slipped, with one last self-assured flourish from the brass, out of town. Sirènes lilted mysteriously, as the voices of the female chorus (seated either side of the Hall) mingled with the cor anglais’s mystical air. Knussen undoubtedly drew forth the poetry in the decorative impressions but sometimes at the expense of the powerful undertones beneath the paint’s surface.

Dreams made their way into some of Stravinsky’s compositions too — The Soldier’s Tale supposedly includes a theme that the composer heard in a dream of a young gypsy sitting by the roadside, playing a fiddle to her child with long sweeps of the bow, while the sacrificial dance of The Rite of Spring was also said to have been inspired by night-time visions. But, there is nothing dream-like about the composer’s Symphony in Three Movements with its fusion of baroque forms and techniques, Russian folk idioms, jazz and self-parody, and with the final work of the programme the BBCSO seemed revitalised, playing with thrillingly animation.

The percussive playing of strings and piano (Elizabeth Burley) during the motoring episodes of the Allegro was exhilarating, acquiring a ferocity that was biting but never unrestrained. Knussen showed acute appreciation of the way the ‘concerto’ episodes articulate the architecture of the work, and in the development section he used the chamber-like scoring to give the independent instrumental statements stature, while maintaining the overall fluency of the contrapuntal textures.

The influence of baroque forms was even more clearly defined in the Andante where the ethereal obbligato harp and trilling woodwind offered a gentle respite after the onslaught of the opening movement, without any loss of harmonic tension. This underlying tension sprang forth once more in the lively syncopations of the Con moto; as varied instrumental voices interjected in vigorous debate, the wealth of material threatened to burst through the boundaries of the fugal forms which contained them, but Knussen retained a taut grip on the explosive, layered blocks as the movement thrust forward to its triumphant conclusion.

Extra-musical stimuli played their part in the Symphony in Three Movements — not dreamy imaginings but the modernity of the twentieth-century city: the mechanical pounding for strings and piano in the opening movement is said to have been Stravinsky’s musical representation of flashing neon lights experienced during a car drive. Moreover, in 1963, in Dialogues and a Diary, the composer noted the influence of cinema in the first movement (a documentary on scorched-earth tactics in China) and in the Con moto (newsreel footage of goose-stepping soldiers, declaring that the conclusion of the finale was associated with ‘the rise of the Allies after the overturning of the German war machine’. Knussen and the BBCSO punched home the contemporaneousness of the Symphony with vitality and verve.

At the start of the concert, Knussen paid tribute to Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who died on Monday at the age of 81, with a performance of Maxwell Davies’s own homage to Stravinsky — a short instrumental canon in which the spare, acerbic melodies wind and entangle themselves before arriving at a position of rest. Followed by a minute’s silence, it was a moving epitaph.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Gunther Schuller — Dreamscape (UK premiere), Debussy — Nocturnes, George Benjamin — Dream of the Song (UK premiere), Stravinsky — Symphony in Three Movements.

Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Oliver Knussen (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers. Barbican Hall, London. 18th March 2016.

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