Music: Classical: A new glory of the garden
Friday 30 January 1998
Barbican Hall, London
The English preoccupation with gardens is as intriguing as it is ancient. On the one hand, it can inspire something as comfortingly, palpably down- to-earth as Gardeners' Question Time; on the other, the garden has been a place of magical or mystical possibilities, where saints have visions and cosseted Victorian children discover heady midnight selves.
The image behind Michael Berkeley's new Secret Garden, a joint LSO/OUP commission, is ambiguous: delight and excitement are there, but also something threatening. One may be reminded of Elgar's wonderful description of part of the first movement of his Second Symphony: "Like a malign influence wandering in a garden on a summer's evening". Berkeley's garden is also surrounded by a barrier, vividly depicted by angry, pulsating brass figures. But eventually these yield and we see beyond: a micro-world of tiny, fascinating details, alternating with broader perspectives. At the end, however, everything - including the brass "barrier" figures - is drawn together into an exultant tutti in a Janacekian D flat major; the final gesture, two D flats rapped out quickly on brass and timpani, is also pure Janacek, a homage to one of music's great yea-sayers, and a clear sign that Berkeley's "dangerous" quest has found its goal.
Wednesday's premiere, given by the LSO under Sir Colin Davis, sounded very assured and full of life and colour. On first impression, Secret Garden seems to stop short of probing the darker, thornier regions revealed in the composer's Clarinet Concerto and opera Baa Baa Black Sheep. But the exhilaration is real enough, especially in the closing pages.
After Secret Garden came one of those works that used to be simply Mozart and now stands revealed as not-quite-Mozart. The Sinfonia Concertante K297b, for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and orchestra, is probably an arrangement of a work by Mozart (with a flute and no clarinet) but based only on the solo parts - in other words, the orchestral material is pastiche by person or persons unknown. As far as I'm aware, nobody ever said it was a profoundly original masterpiece. But whoever wrote it, it's still very pleasant - a musical garden with no hidden surprises, but enough to keep the senses happy. The four soloists from the LSO played it lovingly.
Apart from the ever-popular From the New World, Dvorak's symphonies are nothing like the staple concert fare they used to be. In a way that's sad - when was the last time you heard a performance of No 5 or No 6 by a British orchestra that really knew and loved it? But if it means an orchestra like the LSO can approach a splendid work like No 7 with the freshness and resolve they showed here (not a hint of fatal familiarity), then maybe it's not an entirely bad situation.
The Seventh shows Dvorak utterly at home in symphonic form, able to acknowledge both the rival giants Brahms and Wagner without compromising his own individuality. It is urgent, impassioned, moody sometimes, typically charming - and consistently on a high level from ominous opening to exultant close. It is still very unusual to hear it performed with such conviction and warmth. Davis opted for the traditionally "improved" ending: horns soaring upwards to underline the theme. Not the scholarly solution, of course, but what the hell - it was glorious.
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