BBC Symphony Orchestra/Otaka, Barbican Hall, London

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Richard Barrett's new orchestral work, NO (Resistance and Vision, Part 1) is an impressive and powerful piece that, as its title suggests, challenges all involved.

Richard Barrett's new orchestral work, NO (Resistance and Vision, Part 1) is an impressive and powerful piece that, as its title suggests, challenges all involved. When a composer takes on the world in the ways that Barrett does, he inevitably takes risks. The anti-Iraq War stance outlined in his programme note seems to have ruffled a few feathers at the post-Hutton BBC.

At least the offending passage survived into publication (with a disclaimer). What didn't was the self-interrogation: "What kind of sound-forms could articulate a response to this time, this place, this bombardment by lies and escapist trivia?"

So, what kinds of "sound-forms" can be found in NO? Barrett uses a very large orchestra, and while he doesn't disperse it in any radical way, the string section is sometimes divided up in new ways. The resulting textures are often fresh, though I didn't catch much of the promised spatial movement of sounds.

The 23-minute work is divided into six sections. Held pitches provide some reference points; complex material can be subject to regular repetition, and there are moments of surprising consonance. But that is not to deny the work's challenges, to performers and listeners.

Each performer's individuality is stressed by Barrett in his note, in line with his political message, and parts are sometimes ferociously hard. Glum faces at the end didn't, however, suggest that the BBC SO musicians felt that they had invested much of themselves. But they and Tadaaki Otaka did seem to have done a professional job.

As for the listener, on a first hearing, it's easier to focus in on the more obviously spectacular moments - a rude pair of contrabass clarinets, a horn melody beautifully unfolding in the mêlée - than to follow the work's six-part structure. The bleak expressive message is, though, pretty clear. We need to hear NO again soon, and I look forward to the cycle of pieces, including a theatrical work, of which it will form a part.

Meanwhile, the BBC illustrated the conservatism of present orchestral repertoire discussed in Barrett's pre-concert talk by anachronistically devoting the rest of the concert to Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. Simon Trpceski was the brilliant, but never shallow, soloist in Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto, though its first movement was taken so fast that the orchestra had trouble keeping up with him. But even Otaka's strong grip on structure couldn't save Rachmaninov's First Symphony from sounding sprawling and only fitfully inspired.

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