Classical Music / BBC Symphony Orchestra Royal Festival Hall, London
Tuesday 19 March 1996
The pounding octaves in dotted rhythm, for example, that were prelude to the mighty opening choral statement were instantly characteristic. The orchestral strings at full strength gave them a vigorous immediacy that brought to mind the similar opening of the Sixth Symphony, though they were denied the quality of absolute incisiveness by the blurring acoustics of this curious auditorium. Yet conductor Dmitry Kitaenko caught the vibrant momentum of this section sufficiently well to give ample space to the entry of the soloists in the composer's second division of the text at "Te ergo quaesumus", tenor Keith Lewis leading the ensemble of four singers including soprano Christine Brewer, mezzo Hilary Summers and bass Robert Lloyd. Content to comment and intercede until the final peroration, "Non confundar", the London Symphony Chorus brought forth an ear-splitting fortissimo to end the performance.
The 30 seconds of choral swooning at the end of Scriabin's The Poem of Ecstasy may not be cost effective, but for singers they're worth waiting for. Kitaenko directed a reading that kept the thrills without overdoing the frills. Another purveyor of distinctive musical flavour, Scriabin and his dominant touch override any sense of technical weakness. He has proved a model for several young composers, and this taut account showed why there might be an interest in finding the bones beneath the candy floss.
By contrast, the single piece in the first half, Alfred Schnittke's Second Symphony, "St Florian", returned in spirit to Bruckner, St Florian near Linz being Bruckner's own monastery, and the symphony, in tribute, weaving plainsong fragments of the mass into the folds of an hour-long orchestral commentary. Schnittke, too, can be a composer of distinctive flavour, not least in the recent Concerto for Three. But here, despite much characteristic writing for harpsichord, piano and celesta, the vast open spaces and violently disturbing eruptions of sound seemed dependent on a more basic quality of contrast for their effect. The singers of Polyphony brought an archaic feel to the texture - another ingredient, but a mood, not a fingerprint. A religious text was container for the form, though, as in Scriabin, continuity on the immediate level seemed the result of sheer personality. The players illuminated the substance of the piece, a 1978 BBC commission, and one of the most enduring of recent decades.
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