BBC SO/Tortelier/Graham, Barbican, London
Tuesday 28 December 2004
Six names deserve mention in connection with this evening, and two of them weren't even involved with the concert under review. The BBC Symphony Orchestra's final programme of its pre-Christmas series was preceded by a ceremony, at Ironmongers' Hall, to hand out the British Composer Awards, presented by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters in association with BBC Radio 3 and sponsored by the Performing Right Society; and of the 11 awards made, Judith Bingham picked up two. So congratulations to her; such schemes may not mean a great deal in the long run, but if they further raise the profile of British composers such as Bingham, they can't be a bad thing.
Back in the Barbican Hall, Yan Pascal Tortelier's half-English, half-French programme was dedicated to the remarkable Sidonie Goossens, harpist of the BBC SO for no fewer than 50 years, who died recently aged 105. The concert's opening item was Anthony Payne's Visions and Journeys, his Prom commission of 2002, which received the BBC Radio 3 Listeners' Award last year. The work is impeccably scored and intermittently effective as an unfolding sequence of contrasting images and moods inspired by holidays on the Isles of Scilly, yet its musical material and development didn't strike me as any stronger than it did on first hearing. I can think of quite a few underplayed British orchestral compositions of the last decades that memory suggests would better repay revival; the somewhat underwhelming applause of a modest-sized, mainly "professional", audience suggested that they thought much the same.
The American soprano Susan Graham was the soloist in Ravel's Sheherazade and Debussy's Le Livre de Baudelaire, the latter orchestrated by John Adams. Radiant in orange, yellow and green, Graham was at every instant the actress as well as the singer, even when performing the Debussy from the score. She compelled attention with each facial expression and hand gesture as well as with a subtle range of timbres and eager, but never exaggerated attentiveness to the ebb and flow of both composers' text-setting. In the second Ravel song, "La flute enchantée", Daniel Pailthorpe's sultry solo flute was the perfect match for her.
As well as providing elegant and musical accompaniments for these items, and sterling service for Payne, Tortelier and the BBC SO offered a vivid account of Elgar's In the South (Alassio), digging into this sometimes surprising score with a will and alert, also, to its more lyrical moments. The BBC is keeping back its announcement of this orchestra's new Principal Conductor and Principal Guest Conductor until next month, I'm told; but even if Tortelier doesn't feature on this little list, he must certainly continue to be signed up to appear regularly on the BBC SO's podium.
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