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Nobody can say the BBC does not try to cover all the bases. While Radio 3 is embarking on its high-profile project to broadcast the entire works of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky in a week, the BBC Symphony Orchestra continues to do its duty upholding a presence for living British composers.
Its concert on Friday (February 9) was dominated by a major premiere. Simon Bainbridge, now in his mid 50s, has reached the point where every new piece should be an event – a reputation bolstered in 1994 by Ad ora incerta, his setting of poems by Primo Levi, which is as near to a masterpiece as any British composer has come in the past 15 years.
Diptych, also a BBC commission, is conceived on a large scale. As its title suggests, Diptych comes in two parts, one short and one long, one ravishingly clear, one complex and diffuse. The 10-minute Part 1, which opened the concert, is a study of sound against silence, brilliantly-imagined textures that ripple in and out of the darkness. The light in Venice was apparently Bainbridge’s inspiration and its watery reflections glimmer radiantly in this music.
Part 2, lasting about 25 minutes and performed in the second half, also plays with the idea of images dissolving and reforming, but in a different way. Bainbridge has composed nine short pieces and then cut them into tiny fragments, which are scattered throughout the orchestra. As an idea, this has promise, but the result was frustrating, like watching somebody else playing at a jigsaw without being able to join in. The music has lost any sense of direction and the ideas, beautiful though they are, seem to go round and round. Put simply, one cannot see the whole picture.
Still, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, succeeded in delivering the luminous images Bainbridge’s score imagines. Barry Douglas was the soloist in an unusually muscular performance of Bartók’s Piano Concerto No.3 and Robertson conjured some luscious textures for the closing item, Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. How many extraordinary pre-echoes of Stravinsky there are here. One can almost hear the Firebird flapping its wings through the orchestra.
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