BBCSO / Belohlavek, Barbican Hall, London
Take the Risk, Purcell Room, London

We could have held a party for the composer's friends, but we just had a bag of M&M's

The long, wry face of Bohuslav Martinu gives little away. Posed for a studio portrait, cigarette clamped between his fingers, standing to the side of a concert poster in Boston or strolling through Central Park, here is a quiet man from a small, distant country.

Neither a forgotten genius nor an also-ran, he is a hard sell: fluent in several musical languages, yet somehow voiceless. Forgivable then, if regrettable, that instead of using their six-concert cycle of Martinu's symphonies to provide a context for this Czech chameleon – programming works by Pavel Haas, Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, Hans Krasa or Martinu's pupil and lover, Vitezslava Kapralova – Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra launched their Barbican series with three other composers whose names begin with M.

Are there hints of Mozart, Mahler or Mussorgsky in Martinu's First Symphony? No. Premiered in Boston in 1942, the symphony sounds exactly as it is: a work by an experienced Czech composer writing for a large American orchestra. Rarely is there a phrase without some "added value", be it the skittering of a harp in high register, or the sparkle of a cymbal, like the nervous flourish of a chef who cannot serve a salad without garnishing it with a slice of orange and a snipping of chives. Yet the writing is undeniably polished and attractive. Moravian dance rhythms jostle with the melancholy flutterings of water and wood nymphs, ancient subjects distorted through the crazy-mirror sonorities of Expressionism and the smart syncopations of Broadway.

Big-bosomed, vampish melodies for horn and long-legged oboe solos cede to hazy, pastoral string writing, while snare drums signal Czech resolve under Nazi occupation. There's sorrow here – most evident in Belohlavek's meticulous sculpting of the Largo – and nostalgia too. But tempting as the parallels are between this and Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, Martinu, who had left Prague back in 1923, was suffering from something more complex than the homesickness that dogged his forebear in America. By the time his symphony was premiered, Kapralova, who had conducted the BBC Orchestra in 1938, and Schulhoff were dead, while Haas, Krasa and Ullmann had been interned in Theresienstadt. By the end of the war, Martinu would be the only leading Czech composer of his generation left alive.

Those anxious to hear the music of Martinu's contemporaries will have to search elsewhere. In the meantime, one has to hope that the insurance policy pieces in the BBCSO's performances of his Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies (the Second was given this Friday) are better rehearsed than those here. Gerald Finley sang four songs from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn with unusual delicacy and restraint, saving himself for the tar-boiling malevolence of Shostakovich's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death. Michael Cox's sensitively shaded flute playing was a welcome distraction from the diffident strings, whose lacklustre sound and scruffy entries of Mozart's Symphony No 29 indicated they might need m-m-more than two weeks' holiday after the Proms.

Renamed Take the Risk and curated by lutenist Paula Chateauneuf, this year's Early Music weekend at the Southbank Centre saw a convocation of chitarrones, cornetts, viols, harps and hurdy-gurdys explore historically informed improvisation from several centuries. At one end were the first parallel fourths of organum plainsong, from the Orlando Consort, and at the other the the bowed accompaniment of dramatic laments from 17th-century Rome, from Atalante. In-between we were acquainted by Crawford Young and Friends with the oral traditions of Sephardic song, and witnessed The Division Lobby's on-the-spot creation of an aria over a passacaglia.

As passionate as the Wagner Society, though more polite, the audience was as international as the performers. And for those who quibbled over what improvisation means in the context of figured bass, historical treatises and music stands, there was a chance to try it for themselves in Chateau-neuf's workshop.

If my hard-nosed self would have liked to have heard some improvisations in the style of Mozart, Liszt or Rachmaninov (the tradition lasted past the conventional Early Music cut-off point), Chateauneuf's gentle shepherding of 10 amateur instrumentalists through their first collective bergamasca was very nearly the highlight of this provocative, fascinating weekend. For extravagant, exotic beauty, however, it has to be the funerary soundworld of Atalante's lirones, viols, lutes, harp and organ playing Rossi and Marazzoli's opulent "vanitas" laments.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn