BBC SO/NOTT, Barbican, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In a field jostling with good violin concertos, you can start by giving yours a poetic title: witness to a snow miracle, Simon Holt's new concerto, did just that.

The work concerns the Spanish virgin St Eulalia, cruelly martyred AD304. The concerto's seven movements accordingly reflect the saint's death - the central "snowfall on ashes", for instance, represents the moment when a blanket of snow fell immediately after she had been burned to death. The solo violin can be taken as either St Eulalia herself or as a witness to her agonies.

The concerto has more purely musical idiosyncrasies, too, notably the absence of violas and cellos, and a preference for piccolos and alto flute, for harps, keyboards and tuned percussion. The way in which Holt transmutes what might have been mere oddities into compelling musical sense has something to do with his brilliant writing for the solo violin (which, though containing many powerful moments, is, just occasionally, a bit anonymous).

It certainly has quite a lot to do with Holt's characteristically telling use of his orchestral forces (as in that fourth movement's exquisitely depicted "snow miracle", with its icy extremities of piccolo, contrabassoon and divided violins and double basses, all working in an independent tempo from that of the soloist).

But, most of all, it seems due to the way in which the musical as well as merely pictorial drama of the work unfolds, transcending its multi-movement structure. An uncanny balance between the natural lyricism and latent drama of the violin writing itself, and between this and the orchestra in an essentially non-confrontational setting, is clearly important here.

Viviane Hagner was a dramatically as well as musically vivid soloist in this world premiere performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jonathan Nott. This fine English conductor - unjustly neglected in his own country - also offered carefully shaped, timbre-nuanced accounts of Haydn's 44th and Schubert's 6th symphonies, and, with the full band, a suitably riotous rendition of Hans Werner Henze's Der Erlkönig. More from Jonathan Nott in Britain, please.