MUSIC / Voyage on a hiding to nothing: David Fanning on the world premiere of Philip Wilby's second symphony

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The Independent Culture
THE BIG issues continue to draw composers to the symphony. When Philip Wilby cites his 'desire to explore the eternal theme of man's ultimate insignificance when compared to the works of God and the forces of Nature', you wonder if he is being bold or merely rash. Yes, if any artistic medium is up to the task, it is the symphony; but the Bruckner / Mahler precedents loom dangerously large.

Wilby's symphony, his second, is subtitled Voyaging. The reference is metaphorical rather than literal - to life's journeys rather than to sea-faring exploration. Yet curiously it is the sense of physical travel which impresses, and which backs up the claim to symphonic status, more than the spiritual aspect. Sibelius, rather than the great Austrian religio-symphonists, seems to be the father-figure.

The first of the three movements, in essence a long arch of acceleration and deceleration, is strong on rhythmic layering of the kind that gives Sibelius's symphonies their elemental, propulsive force. The half-lit evocations at either end show that Wilby has a good ear for euphonious, multivoiced harmony too; but he is never so in thrall to the pleasure principle as to descend into post-minimalist doodling. Here, you feel, is a prelude to something rather special.

The second movement has memorably scherzo-like slitherings. But by then I was starting to worry about some of the rhetoric. The line between inevitability and obviousness is a thin one and can only be subjectively drawn. But I began to tire of the affirmative tone, and the passages for harmon-muted brass had a seasick quality that I'm not sure was intended.

The shorter final movement, incorporating words from Psalm 8 sung by treble voices, rather confirmed suspicions of a lack of melodic distinction and surface rhythmic interest. The psalm-setting itself sounded contrived, leaving Wilby's spiritual ambitions, and, sadly, the symphony as a whole, high and dry. The final impression was of fertile ground in need of better seed.

The BBC Philharmonic presented the latest in a long line of fearsomely competent premiere performances, and Yan Pascal Tortelier's direction was secure and full-blooded. But it disturbs me somewhat that an orchestra that has played so often in the Royal Northern College of Music has still not adapted to this lively acoustic and restricted space: much of the playing was seriously over-projected.

Tortelier himself is something of a live wire, and performances are never routine when he is on the podium. That he and the orchestra have embarked on a series of Hindemith recordings together might seem to involve a mismatch of temperament. But the results have proved the opposite - that Gallic flair and English enthusiasm can be the perfect foil for Teutonic dourness. Fears that the 1921 Rag Time might be upstaged by Ian Kemp's virtuosically witty programme-note were soon stilled. This poker-faced send-up of a Bach fugue made an ideal concert-opener, at once provocative and entertaining, and proof that such a thing can still be found if you have your finger on the musical pulse.

Tortelier fils then accompanied Oistrakh fils, the now rather senior Igor, in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No 2. This was a very mixed bag - for the most part authoritative and vividly coloured, yet somehow also curiously ungiving and all-purpose romantic in expression. Violinistic fireworks abounded (and super-abounded in the Paganini Caprice which Oistrakh threw in as an encore), but lyrical lines often had more magic when the orchestra took them over.