BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, London – review

There is a French theme running through the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concerts this season. This takes in the leading 20th-century composers, such as Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, but in the best tradition of BBC programming reaches forward in time to embrace some of the contemporary composers other UK orchestras would be unlikely to touch.

One area of interest is “spectral music” – a term coined in the 1970s to describe music that is conceived in some way as pure sound, often developed from computer analyses. It is easy to see its origins in the French impressionists and more recent travellers along this path include French composers such as Gérard Grisey and Hugues Dufourt.

Grisey, who died in his fifties in 1998, left pieces of spectral music that pack a strong punch. His Mégalithes, inspired by prehistoric stone circles, places small groups of brass players in a circle around the audience and gives them short sections of wildly contrasted sounds – misty clouds of quarter-tones, rapid pulsations like the buzzing of bees, and so on. The BBC brass players made a virtuoso job of it and, at 10 minutes, the work does not outstay its welcome.

The same could not be said of Dufourt’s On the Wings of the Morning (2012). In effect, this is a piano concerto, which seeks to visualise Eros and Thanatos (Love and Death) from ancient Greek art in terms of avant-garde orchestral sounds, such as glissandos of harmonics and woodwind “multiphonics”. What we actually hear, though, is a 20-minute wall of noise – quite impenetrable, despite the heroic efforts of the pianist, Nicolas Hodges. Once this dies down, the closing, quiet section at last allows the inventive sound combinations to be heard and make some effect, but by then it was too late.

The second half of the concert ended with the improbable pairing of Boulez – his Cummings ist der Dichter, performed with scrupulous precision by the BBC Singers – and Beethoven’s Symphony No.7. This should not have worked, but Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave a performance of the Beethoven that was so clear, clean and swift that some connection with “spectral” purity of sound could just about be made.

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