BBC SO / Saraste, Barbican, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This was a long day's journey but one which the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their principal guest (soon to be chief?) conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste seemed, for the most part, to relish. Their performance of the evening's first masterpiece (there were two others - not bad for one concert) - Arnold Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra - was remarkable for an orchestra coming cold at music so fraught with disquiet.

You can see in your mind's eye what this music looks like - it's what happens before and after Edvard Munch's Scream - but Schoenberg could better convey the idea to manuscript than canvas. The brass here often play fortissimo but with mutes on, suggesting that the scream in question is stifled. It is an astonishing, highly emotional, abstract score. We experience myriad sensations but aren't encouraged to know why: two chords sleepwalk through an ever-shifting soundscape in the third piece and we wonder at the way in which the colours seem to dictate the harmony, and vice versa.

Saraste did well to keep all the sonic nerve endings well exposed. He has a disarmingly extravagant beat but I'm not convinced that the shapes he paints in the air always work. His optimistically late downbeats don't always make for clean chords, and in Sibelius's elliptical Fourth Symphony he missed quite a few tricks in the management of dynamics. Mostly he was too much on the heavy side of loud: the big releases - like those cresting, wave-like climaxes in the slow movement - need to stand out in greater relief. And after so many shadowy recesses and more than a few dead ends, the finale needed more air and light in the texture.

The orchestra played with a personality, vigour and amplitude not always forthcoming from them. The opening descent of the Sibelius, with cellos and basses plunging into a pendulum-like motion, was impressive. There was nowhere to go from there but up, and up is where Strauss's Four Last Songs took us. "Going to Sleep" (the third song) was certainly a release after the night sweats of the Schoenberg.

A big audience had turned out for Karita Mattila, the star soloist originally announced for the gig. But playing Salome in Paris had clearly taken its toll and she had withdrawn in favour of a great singer who would not herself have pulled such a crowd, but who amply rewarded them - and who was given a tremendous ovation. Christine Brewer is a a well-kept secret on the international circuit, but surely not for much longer. When summer gave us one last smile in the second song, "September", her voice opened gloriously and while the words could have been a little more distinctly coloured, the great arching release of "And my soul, unguarded, would soar free in flight" did just that.