Michael Tippett died 14 years ago but his diverse canon has been relatively underrepresented since, the pacifist A Child of Our Time being perhaps the exception. In tonight's Barbican outing, it was surprising but refreshing to see his Triple Concerto for violin, viola and cello, written in 1978–9, paired with Henk de Vlieger's orchestral contraction of Wagner's Ring cycle. The two mammoth works share the central concept of a journey but are otherwise rather different beasts. Tonight they were ably reconciled by Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who displayed versatility and stamina in a programme which ended up balanced just right.
The Triple Concerto returns to a more lyrical episode in Tippett's writing. Yet it still challenges both listener and convention, suggesting an anxiety about daily existence which is simultaneously alluring and disturbing. The hallmark of this work is its influence from the Gamelan. Tippet became aware of this traditional Indonesian ensemble on a visit to Bali, and imbued the composition on which he was working with its rhythmic, melodic percussion.
As the title suggests, the Triple Concerto is a game of threes. Three movements (with two interludes) represent the cycle of one day to another. Three instruments play the trio over the orchestra like one person in three different moods on three different days – all at once. From its choppy, unwelcoming beginning, the piece provided constant fascinations. The Leopold String Trio of Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Laurence Power (who is among the rare breed of internationally renowned viola soloists) and Kate Gould (cello), were absorbing to watch. Their separate parts sometimes fused into a complementary melodic stream, but the tension between them as they battled for prominence above the orchestra and atmosphere of confusion but persistence. Of all the various percussive tools at hand, the marimba had the most interplay with the trio, particularly in the first interlude, where it danced with the harp, celesta and alto flute.
The anomaly of the piece is the second interlude, a brilliant burst of syncopation and snippets of jazz in the brass. But it doesn't sustain for long; this rude awakening morphs into the lively final episode. Here the trio came together into an affirmation of energy and life, subsiding towards the end with the gamelan-like percussion, which by this stage seems to represent a consistent life force. It was a fulfilling performance and a confident one. The Leopold String Trio turns 21 this year but this was its last performance before disbanding, which is a shame considering the chemistry they displayed here.
From personal journeys to The Ring, an orchestral adventure, which is described on Vlieger's website as a "symphonic compilation" of music from all four parts of Wagner's Ring cycle. Condensing fifteen hours of music, a host of virtuosic singers and an epic plot into just the one hour is a challenge, but it's one which Vlieger has managed rather well. The orchestra is still Wagnerian in size – including four harps and Wagner tubas. From an ominous, ebbing-and-flowing Vorspiel (prelude), through a swaggering Die Walküren (the Valkyries), to the stirring Trauermusik (funeral music) for Siegfried, the BBC SO displayed all of the vivid orchestral hues that you would expect from Wagner, with strident brass, well-marshalled strings and a versatile expressive palette. The journey was never stilted and the leitmotifs were as recognisable as ever.
A seamless orchestral arrangement, the piece rides a rollercoaster course of grandiose emotion, full of peaks and troughs rather than following an overall arc. But Wigglesworth did not allow it to feel shapeless; he seemed in his element, bringing out the sensitivities and richness of the score to produce an energetic yet warm, golden sound that characterises the BBC SO at its best. Throw in some capable solo turns from several brass players and this was, like the Tippett before, a thoroughly satisfying and invigorating performance.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
Mark Wigglesworth © Sim Canetty-Clarke