MUSIC / End games: Nicholas Williams on the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's Beckett-based saxophone concerto

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The Independent Culture
There were two defining elements in Mark-Anthony Turnage's new concerto for soprano saxophone, premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Wednesday. One was the power and artistry of the work's soloist and dedicatee, Martin Robertson; the other was the guiding inspiration of a monologue of despair by Samuel Beckett.

Even so, literary enthusiasts might have searched in vain for the musical equivalent of the pregnant syllable and the meaningful silence. Your Rockaby was Turnage in full flood: a 25-minute orchestral sonata reflecting the experience of a batch of recent works and his powers of sustained argument. To an already augmented ensemble were added cimbalom and exotic percussion for the kind of hard-edged, shining tutti that Turnage has made his own.

Against this deluge the soloist came out fighting, uplifted and working ceaselessly in mad jazz patterns to stem the orchestral tide. Reticence, for Beckett, was the calculus of pain. For Turnage, here at least, every phrase appeared to mark a higher level of almost physical confrontation.

Except, that is, in the final lullaby, where upheaval gave way to blues melancholy and emptiness. Its bitter-sweet melody, tailored to display the best of Robertson's soaring cantilena, was a 'setting' of the opening of Beckett's text, in which an old woman quietly rocks herself to sleep - and death. How else, perhaps, to conclude such an essay in friction, where earlier on the soloist had ridden the orchestral storm of manic high drama shared with darkly brooding episodes?

Robertson's variety of attack and rich vibrato marked a player of distinction, surviving textures that seemed almost too sustained, overwrought if never overwritten. In the lullaby the conflict of opposites was reconciled in suspended tension. The literary source turned violence on its head, yet the sense remained of much that was left unspoken.

After the interval Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony, also in the safe hands of conductor Andrew Davis, explored a world of more positive assertions. Whereas the moments of Edwardian splendour in this piece build themselves, it is the work's original spiritual impulse that the performers must seek to renew on each acquaintance.

The acid test is the finale, a panoramic choral-orchestral fantasia on Walt Whitman's Passage to India, with an ecstatic duet for soprano and baritone soloists at its heart. For Amanda Roocroft and Thomas Hampson, two voices uniquely matched in timbre and resonance, this was an inspiring moment that surely reached out to listeners to Radio 3's live broadcast as well. Hampson, supported by a strong alto line from the BBC Symphony Chorus, had given depth and vision to the earlier slow movement, where the poet's vision of a 'vast similitude' was not always matched by similitudes of tempo.

But both players and singers found common cause in the rapt vision of eternity concluding the symphony. In 1910 Vaughan Williams could attain such Mahlerian serenity without compromise. For interest, compare it with the Sixth Symphony's epilogue, written two wars and three decades later. The mood is stoical, resigned; closer to Beckett in fact.