What a wonderful season the BBC Symphony Orchestra is having. Adventurous, not fashion-conscious programming, and a crispness in the playing that is quite distinctive and utterly refreshing. And whoever had the idea to feature the works of Michael Tippett, in Britten's centenary year, needs to be promoted. This evening's concert, conducted by Alexander Vedernikov, was a thrilling evenings in the concert hall. It was like a Prom, without the cavernous acoustic. And thank goodness we didn't have to endure that massive space, as the impact of the three pieces performed benefited from the claustrophobic acoustic of the Barbican Hall.
We started with John Adams' energetically humourous The Chairman Dances from his opera Nixon in China. This entertaining work doesn't quite outstay its welcome, as some of Adams' larger-scale pieces do, but it nearly does. With the rhythmic drive and the needle-sharp orchestration, the glamour of the opening passage is completely winning, but as the piece progresses there is the nagging feeling that there is very little actual thematic content in the piece and that the infectious rhythmic drive could become irritating. And then the whole thing dissolves and you are left with a few cheeky scratchings from the percussion to finish. All this was presented to us on a platter by a very sharp performance, never lingering and never pushing too hard.
Tippett's Piano Concerto was presented by Steven Osborne and the BBC SO with a confidence that wasn't asking us to make allowances for a "flawed work", but rather taking for granted that this is a first-rate concerto that deserves to be played and played. As the programme note says, surely this is the greatest British work in the form, and Osborne confirmed this view in this terrifically poised and powerful performance.
Superficially influenced by Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, Tippett found his individual way to present his ideas about what a piano concerto could be in the second half of the 20th century. The loose-limbed first movement has a toughness at its core (the development section) that everything radiates from. The wonderful long opening passage with its filigree writing for the piano leads to a string of gloriously dynamic themes. The thematic variety can seem bewildering on first hearing, but as the material returns later in the movement its inner logic reveals itself. Vedernikov and the BBC SO held all these elements together as if he had performed the piece dozens of times.
The recitative-like slow movement has a unique and intuitive form that defies analysis. In this performance Osborne's strength and dramatic flair in the long opening bravura passages was stunning, and when the initial thrust dies down the gradual unwinding was faultlessly poetic. In the finale, Tippett seems to be enjoying himself in his florid post-Romantic style to an almost excessive degree, perhaps sensing it was time to move on. The whole work then takes on the guise of a joyful farewell to the lushness and vigour of the early-period works, before evolving into that darker world of the 1960s that produced works such as King Priam and The Vision of Saint Augustine.
I'm not sure what Tippett would have thought about sitting between Adams and Shostakovich – he was certainly open about his dislike of the "bombastic" nature of the Shostakovich symphonies. However, surely he would have recognized the personal nature of the Eighth Symphony. Even if he found the poster-art feel of it somewhat obvious, the stunning technical brilliance of the writing for the orchestra and the genuine emotional drive surely would have won him over, especially in this unflinching performance.
In my opinion, the Eighth is Shostakovich's greatest symphony. It combines many of the positive structural and experimental elements of past and future symphonies, while managing to be a very personal statement. After the runaway success of the "Leningrad" Symphony, Shostakovich must have thought he would be given a free pass to write what he wanted in his next symphony – this was sadly not to be. As a result he dared to produce a work devoid of fake heroism or corrosive irony. Instead, it speaks of personal anguish, fear and anger. The spectre of cold death hangs over it. Of all his symphonies, it seems to be speaking in the true voice of the composer, which you only otherwise find in his superb string quartets.
The first movement presents its ideas first in slow motion, then in violent, screeching anguish, and finally in fearful resignation. It is a monumental structure that can drag, but was here presented with a real sense of forward momentum by Vedernikov and the BBC SO. The heavy tread of the bitter and twisted Scherzo was held together without overemphasis or flashiness. The three connected movements that end the work start with a wild perpetuum mobile that seemed to have been transplanted from the brilliantly experimental Fourth Symphony. After a devastating climax, the music collapses into a lament in the form of a ground bass decorated by the some wonderfully mournful solos from the wind section. A jarring modulation to something that felt like a major key appears to be heralding the obligatory mock-bombastic finale. This lighter atmosphere, however, is short-lived, and the movement moves towards another violent climax. This onslaught seems to leave the composer nonplussed or exhausted and the music fades out into a whimsical strumming on the strings. A strangely moving end to an undoubted masterpiece, all caught by the BBC SO and Vedernikov with incisiveness and virtuosity.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican © Lara Platman