As the centenary of the first world war approaches, the opening decades of the 20th century are going to be under the cultural spotlight. In music, as in other art forms, this was a period of tremendous upheaval and achievement, as composers broke free from the national traditions and styles that had shaped the Romantic era.
Appropriately enough, the focus of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Saturday was on the years that led up to the war. This was the orchestra’s last concert of the season at the Barbican – its annual eight-week siege at the BBC Proms is looming over the horizon – and it brought back as conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who invariably has interesting programming ideas.
Even the new music here was rooted in the past. Wolfgang Rihm’s Nähe fern 1, a 10-minute orchestral piece from 2011, was getting its first UK performance, but its purpose is to reach back to an earlier time, hence its interplay between “far” and “near”. The work is one of four originally intended to be paired with the Brahms symphonies, but there is not much Brahms in it. The atmosphere is tangibly Mahlerian, as if we are listening to some distant, grainy echo of the Adagio from Mahler’s Symphony No.9. Rihm’s score rises out of the depths of the orchestra, as though plumbing deepest memories, and ultimately sinks back there – evocative, but not especially distinctive.
A group of songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn followed. Although composed mostly in the 1890s, these presage a descent into military conflict, and the selection made by Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter brought soldiers’ songs to the fore. His singing, sure as a bullet, was admirably strong and clear, but intimacy was at a premium, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing lacked finesse.
In Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, “The Year 1905”, Metzmacher and the orchestra pulled together (had this work received the bulk of the rehearsal time?). The symphony portrays the 1905 uprising in St Petersburg after the manner of a film score for a Russian cinematic epic and, despite a tendency towards dense and gloomy orchestral textures, Metzmacher’s performance rose to its spirit of revolutionary ardour with some panache and excitement.