Voyage of discovery

Stravinsky: BBCSO/ Andrew Davis; Matrix Ensemble Royal Festival Hall; St John's, London
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The Independent Culture
The BBC's Stravinsky series Rights of Spring has treated us over the past 10 days to a feast of the composer's music, a lot of it unfamiliar. Two concerts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the invigorating lead of Andrew Davis, ranged widely over his astonishingly varied output, while Robert Ziegler and the Matrix Ensemble explored, among other things, the Russian period that first brought Stravinsky to international prominence .

The startling journey which took the composer from youth to octogenerian mastery was dramatically illustrated in last Thursday's concert, where we heard the early Symphony in E flat, composed under the tutelage of his composition teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, immediately after the "Aldous Huxley Variations", that astonishingly compressed masterpiece from the 1960s. A friend once asked me how long I thought the Variations lasted. To his delight, I fell into the trap, and supposed about 12 minutes. They are, of course, under half that length, but Stravinsky's masterly concentration of structural means made it possible to suggest, as he would have put it, 12 minutes of felt time in five minutes of ontological, or real, time.

All of this was superbly suggested by Andrew Davis and the BBC players, although they only truly nailed the music's taxing details in a repeat performance, given, Davis told his audience, in order to prove the composer's point that the three exquisitely textured 12-part Variations make a different expressive effect each time we hear them. As for the symphony, exuberantly presented by Davis, there is little to mark except the extraordinary affinities both thematically and texturally with Glazunov's Fifth and Eighth Symphonies. In truth, despite its charm, there is hardly an original moment in this work, which is the more odd considering that The Right of Spring was only three years away.

The programme also included a sparkling performance of the Violin Concerto, with Kyoko Takezawa a bright but never brittle soloist, and Davis tautly in command. In fact, Davis seems particularly in tune with those neo-classical works that Boulez, for instance, another contributor to this concert series, has always dismissed. This was borne out by Davis's marvellous reading of Persephone the previous week. It was an interpretation that positively glowed, the chording in Stravinsky's exquisitely weighted textures breathtakingly poised. Wonderful singing by the BBC Symphony Chorus and New London Children's Choir, a beautifully judged commentary by Irene Jacob, and Donald Kaasch's accomplished tenor completed the picture. It was followed by a powerfully- intense Oedipus Rex, whose vastly different classical world was no less magisterially captured. Jon Garrison, Louise Winter and Alan Opie were outstanding soloists and Samuel West narrated with flair.

Which leaves the Matrix Ensemble's Sunday evening concert. It was notable for a lively rendering of that inimitable burlesque, Renard, beautiful singing by Susan Roberts and Mark Tucker in the Cantata, and a rare performance of the Four Russian Peasant Songs for ladies voices and four horns, exhilarating in its rustic verve.

The BBC Singers/ Matrix concert will be broadcast tomorrow, 9.45pm, on `Choir Works', Radio 3

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