Classical Review: Three by three

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Indy Lifestyle Online
BBC SO / Andrew Davis

RFH, SBC, London

"Three of a Kind" they've called the BBC Symphony Orchestra's new season, because it focuses, if not exclusively, on Schoenberg and his two pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. If the three were really of a kind, it wouldn't be very interesting to put their music together in the same programmes. They did have much in common - the shared Wagnerian heritage, the expressionist crisis, the 12-note method - but then, each being a major artist, they went their own ways.

Friday's concert began with Andrew Davis conducting Webern's Six Pieces, Op 6, one of his most popular scores because of its colours, atmospheric frissons and the fierce funeral march - almost an execution scene - that forms the unforgettable climax of the set. Poor Webern, relegated as hors- d'uvre before Berg's Violin Concerto, whose maudlin imagery is only redeemed by Berg's supple craftsmanship.

But then the concerto didn't seem quite so shattering as it might, largely because Pierre Amoyal floated through it in a honeyed mezzo forte, reducing the range of both volume and character. True, he did play in tune and make a lovely sound but, if your feelings aren't wrung by this lurid tale of death and transfiguration, something is wrong.

Intensity is hardly something you can complain about with the Second Viennese School. It's a donne. Schoenberg's early symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande, of 1903 (four years after the original chamber version of Verklarte Nacht), replaces the inscrutable malaise of Maeterlinck's play and Debussy's opera with a much heavier, Germanic darkness. There's an angular "destiny" theme of four notes that seems to say "I told you so", and the soughing, heaving forest where Melisande is discovered, the eerily descending double thirds of flutes and piccolos that herald the close of the story, inspire thrills of dread and foreboding in a comfortable way, like a fairy-tale.

The orchestra is so vast and the textures so dense and bottom-heavy that even the analytical acoustic of the Festival Hall could not sort out some of the climaxes. Presumably, Schoenberg had a warm, spacious sound like the Vienna Musikverein in mind. There's also a curious feeling, as Schoenberg himself confessed, that the music spends an awful long time starting, or being about to start. You're not quite sure whether it has got going when it embarks on an equally protracted series of endings. Still, it's gorgeous, and given the huge task of preparation, Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra made a pretty good job of it.

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