On the day after the announcement of the programme for this year's BBC Proms, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave us yet another concert worthy of that great festival. Under the experienced baton of Martyn Brabbins they took three centuries of music in their stride and at the end of the concert I was left feeling that musical life in London would be so much less exciting without the BBC.
The concert kicked off with the London première of a 2008 piece by Mark Simpson, A mirror-fragment.... Simpson is one of the über talented musicians that really shouldn't be allowed to exist. Winner of the 2006 BBC Young Musician of the Year on his clarinet and then winner of the BBC Proms/Guardian Young Composer of the Year, he has since then been showered with commissions and performance opportunities. A Mirror Fragment... is one such commission, from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.
The overall impression of the work was that it was fabulously rich and technically very accomplished – rather like a study in orchestral writing. Thematically the piece moves from a neo-avant-garde palette at the outset towards a more comfortable melodic and harmonic language. This eventually opens out into a noble chorale-type passage on the brass. This is followed by a keening cello theme, before a brief return to the opening musical material to finish. Mostly thrilling as an aural experience, the only criticism of the piece would be that it seemed more interested in its own brilliance than genuinely seeking out anything meaningful to say. But then Simpson was only 19 when he wrote it.
Another talented young musician was the star of the Beethoven Violin Concerto that followed. The Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma stepped into the "indisposed" shoes of the über-popular Nicola Benedetti as short notice and her performance didn't disappoint. Saying that, she did appear somewhat nervous at the start of the long opening movement, not quite achieving the effortless poise needed in this seraphic music. However, after losing her way at one point, she seemed to find her feet and the rest of the movement settled down. It was in the slow movement that she fully came into her own with some wonderfully delicate playing in the upper register and beautiful interplay with the orchestra. In the finale I felt the extrovert mood suited her perfectly, and by the end there was that genuine sense of joy this most satisfying of concertos should always deliver.
The mood created before the interval was a perfect preparation for Michael Tippett's Second Symphony, which followed. Written in 1956–57, it was one of the last pieces he wrote in the mainly tonal, romantic/neo-classical style he had developed over the previous 20 years. The valedictory mood in the last movement, with it "five gestures of farewell", perhaps points to a certain sadness in the composer, that this rich soundworld was now being seen in some circles as old-fashioned. Tippett knew that he had to adapt or end up being sidelined. Especially at a time when the arrival of William Glock at the BBC marked a different direction for that important institution and British musical life in general – looking more towards European modernism than British pastoralism.
The Second Symphony seems to have its feet in both camps. The opening Allegro vigoroso, with its wonderful stomping rhythms (inspired by Vivaldi), is one of the most uninhibited movements Tippett ever wrote. In this rhythmically accurate performance, it moved thrillingly all-too-quickly to its rousing Beethovenian coda. The magical slow movement, expertly paced by Brabbins, consists of interplay between idyllic string melodies and anxious brass fanfares – still very much in the ethereal world of The Midsummer Marriage. The stunning scherzo, taken here at a relatively slow tempo compared to the Colin Davies recording, still delivered its incendiary middle section satisfyingly. The finale is the most original of the movements. Described by the composer as in fantasia form, it consists of four unrelated sections, which end with the "five gestures" mentioned earlier. In this performance, any doubts about it being fit for purpose were dispelled. The overall moderate tempos of the whole performance and less assertive demeanour (than Davies) seemed to enable the ecstatic elements of the Fantasia to shine through.
With another performance of the symphony with the same orchestra – conducted this time by Oliver Knussen – due to happen at the Proms this summer, maybe the familiarity brought about by repeated hearings, will help this symphony become one of the cornerstones of the repertory that it deserves to be.
*Note: Nicola Benedetti has been replaced by Simone Lamsma as of April 19th.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Mark Simpson © Elisabeth Blanchett