Classical Music Live Review: Burrell premiere: Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals RFH, London

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The Independent Culture
Some composers strive for individuality: others just are different. Diana Burrell is firmly in category two. It isn't a question of techniques or mannerisms, but of spirit. In marked contrast to many of today's English composers, there isn't a hint of anal retentiveness about her - nothing to suggest that she composes with a repressed donnish critic peering over her shoulder. She has written an ambitious symphony, full of grand, heroic gestures, and christened it with one of her typically extravagant titles: Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals. The music is unashamedly illustrative: shrill birdsong on woodwind and xylophone, trumpetings and bellowings from the brass, basses lowing like primal oxen, off-stage violins flashing and diving like shoals of fish. Along with these come other, less definite, but equally fantastical sounds: rattling pebbles, an aboriginal "rainmaker", flexatones and swanee whistle.

I can't pretend that it all made perfect sense in Wednesday's first performance (premieres of truly original works rarely do). The significance of the two short "Episodes" - a kind of open-ended chorale prelude and a vivid evocation of English change ringing - wasn't easy to gauge from one hearing. But all five movement were full of sounds and ideas that demand to be heard again, from the warm, faintly Tippettish chord that sets the work in motion to the brazen chant that rounds off the finale.

Some of the string writing was especially memorable: gritty but also lyrical, the harmonic logic plainly heard and felt rather than drily calculated. Performed with conviction - as it was here by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Michael Schonwandt - Burrell's music is strikingly direct. It stirs the emotions and excites the senses even when the intellect is still trying to find its bearings. She plainly wants the listener to see pictures and search for extra-musical meanings, and on this level, too, it was hard to resist. And if details were sometimes difficult to process, there is still an unmistakable sense of larger movement, with climaxes plainly where they ought to be.

This brave work should be heard again soon: is it too late to find a space for it in the Proms? Symphonies of Flocks, Herds and Shoals made its debut in the company of two heroic Nordic works: Sibelius's Karelia suite and Nielsen's Fourth Symphony, known here as "The Inextinguishable" (perhaps, one day, somebody will come up with a better translation of the Danish). The performance of the Sibelius was competent but somewhat uninvolving, but the Nielsen was alive and compelling from start to finish, with some beautiful solos, not least from the BBC SO's supertimpanist, John Chimes. The outer movements were as rousing and uplifting as they should be, but it was good, too, to hear the delightful little allegretto second movement played with affection - more than a respite before we get back to the real business. Everything in this symphony is real.