The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s winter programme at the Barbican has started to look uncannily like its concerts at the Proms in the summer. Here is the same format of contemporary work followed by popular symphony, except that the good house it draws at the Royal Albert Hall is replaced by a pretty small one at the Barbican.
There was really nothing to frighten people off in Friday’s concert. The “new” work was in reality only half-new, and was an orchestral showpiece of the kind that should win friends rather than alienate them: Henze’s Scorribanda sinfonica (2000-1), a reworking of his dance drama Maratona di Danza from 1956, here receiving its first UK performance. According to Henze’s own words, he “ravished” his original score to produce this 15-minute explosion of energy. To judge from its rhythmic liveliness and the luscious orchestral sounds, he also ravished Stravinsky and Richard Strauss along the way – a vivid example of Henze’s still potent skills in his 80th birthday year.
The BBC players’ heightened sense of attentiveness in the Henze carried over into the remainder of the evening. The performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 that followed was well prepared in all respects. An appreciation for technical flawlessness makes Nelson Freire a pianist’s pianist. Signs that he likes to show off what he can really do – he chose Busoni’s reworking of the cadenzas bolstered by extra pizzazz – were held in check and his effortlessly fluent playing was entirely satisfying on its own terms, as long as Radu Lupu’s poetry and Claudio Arrau’s deep-seated emotions stayed out of one’s mind.
The conductor, Manfred Honeck, also gets exactly what he wants out of a performance. The early signs that he would exert a keen grip on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 were not misleading – this was an orchestra confident in what it had been asked to do, whether starting the slow movement in a barely audible pianissimo or blazing its way brassily through the climaxes – but the emotional level of the symphony remained obstinately low. A determination to get every note in the right place does not necessarily yield spiritual dividends.
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