January 9, 2014 5:17 pm

BBCSO/Sakari Oramo, Barbican, London – review

In rude health under its new conductor, the orchestra brought finesse to a Colin Matthews premiere
Sakari Oramo©Chris Christodoulou

Sakari Oramo

Musical inspiration comes in two basic forms – the ideas themselves and the technical skill to develop them. The composers who make most impact are those whose inspiration works on both levels. Music that lacks one or other is inherently flawed, as Colin Matthews’ new orchestral work Traces Remain demonstrated at its first performance on Wednesday. The piece purports to spring from vestiges of the past that can offer unexpected illumination for the present – or so a pretentious programme note suggested – but in reality it consists of a string of references to Mahler, Schoenberg, Beethoven and Purcell, linked by Matthews’ all-purpose orchestration. This game of “spot the quote” goes on for 20 minutes. No original ideas, precious little individuality.

Thanks to his work for the Britten Estate, the record label NMC and other worthy causes, Matthews (born 1946) is an extremely valuable member of the English musical establishment. The trade-off is that, every now and again, we have to listen to one of the commissions this same establishment feels duty bound to give him. Traces Remain is not ugly. It is not clumsy. It just hides behind a patchwork of other composers’ ideas, as if Matthews is unable to take responsibility for his own music.

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The BBC Symphony Orchestra, under its new chief conductor, Sakari Oramo, brought finesse to Matthews’ directionless atmospherics, thereby helping to relieve the tedium. But they sounded much happier in the two works that framed it.

The concert started with Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra, in a brisk, virtuosic account by members of the orchestra’s horn section. Led by Martin Owen, they really entered into the outdoor spirit of the piece, despatching the harmonic flourishes with gusto and displaying impressive sensitivity in the intimate Romanze.

As for Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony after the interval, well, sceptics might wonder why the BBCSO needs to play such a cornerstone of the repertoire when so much lesser-known music needs exposure. Oramo provided a lively riposte. His interpretation had vitality, urgency, a sense of surprise, an awareness of style. The orchestra sounds in rude health, and Oramo is proving a better choice than many predicted.


bbc.co.uk/symphonyorchestra

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