Thursday, October 22, 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 2 p.m.
Guest Writer, Ateş Orga
“The virtuosity of the orchestra … wiped out any reproach Englishmen may feel in the face of [visitors] from abroad” (The Times, 23 October 1930). Devised by two icons of radio history – Edward Clark and Julian Herbage – the BBC Symphony Orchestra is ninety today. With a spate of forerunners including the Berlin Radio Symphony (1923), the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony (1923), the Danish National Symphony (1925), the Radiojournal Orchestra Prague (1926), the NHK Symphony Tokyo (1926), the Finnish Radio Symphony (1927), the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (1929), the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony (1929), and the Ukrainian Radio Symphony (1929), it’s not the oldest broadcasting orchestra around. But it has always been a premier-ranking trendsetter, leading the field in contemporary music of the most complex vocabulary, with a challenging roster of high-profile chief conductors, the majority foreign. In my time Sargent (succeeding Boult, its first director, in 1950), Schwarz, Doráti, Colin Davis, Boulez, Kempe, Rozhdestvensky, Pritchard, Andrew Davis, Leonard Slatkin, Jiří Bělohlávek. The present incumbent, Sakari Oramo, took the reins in 2013, with his young Ukrainian-born Finnish compatriot Dalia Stasevska appointed principal guest last year.
“International envoy”, the BBC SO has enlightened generations, shaped attitudes, educated minds, and helped in the healing process following war, strife, atrocity and deprivation. Flagship to the many radio ensembles that mushroomed in Europe post-1945. Backbone of the Proms. Nicholas Kenyon’s 1981 history, tracing its first half century, remains the indispensable reference source. But there’s need and room for another volume. A lot has transpired in the forty years since, not least an extraordinary flowering of visiting conductors – a tradition begun in the 1930s with Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss – including Michael Gielen, Günter Wand, Péter Eötvös and Semyon Bychkov (appointed in 2012 to the Günter Wand Conducting Chair, which he still holds).
Of her ‘Live Mixtape’ project – a fusion of pre-recorded and concert/live-studio material – Dalia Stasevska says that “the time travel idea” was inspired by the orchestra’s history and accomplishment as well by Sibelius and his second set of Scènes historiques (1912). “We’re celebrating the history of the BBC SO, the history of British music, and the close friendship the UK has with Finnish music. How a unique combination of music communicates with us, how pieces communicate with each other through time and what kind of story they tell us.” A clearly personal, modern take, less concerned with grandiose chronological tribute or ‘English’ reference than perceived links and intimacies between Britain and Finland, as much to do with geography, climate and mentality as culture. Bearing on the mix, however, was the BBC SO’s visit to Scandinavia under Malcolm Sargent in June 1956, the orchestra’s first tour by air, the repertory including Vaughan Williams, Britten and Sibelius.
At first glance the programming looked odd. But once into a temporal/dynamic framework essentially leisured and mid-range and a timbral perspective broadly string-dominated, it yielded dividends, the greater one’s concentration the richer the return. Of the Finnish offerings, Rautavaara’s late Into the heart of light (2011) took time to unfold, but the close found the right degree of magical revelation. The Sibelius triptych was careful, the pulse almost kept under wraps, at best in the expressive core of the second movement, Minnelaulu (Love Song). “Music for people to listen to, not for my desk drawer”, Lotta Wennäkoski’s Hava (2007) proved uneven, despite its skill and transient allure. Her philosophy, though, we can all share, that “a musical entity can – when all pieces click together – reach over and beyond music as a phenomenon, to interpret humanity. To be available to others, to be recognised: as evidence of what it means to exist.”
Carefulness, emotional restraint, stranded some of the British content, leading now and again to pallidity – frosty woods and damp paths in sunless autumn. That said, Judith Weir’s Still, Glowing (“ambient music” on a chord sequence from her 1990 opera The Vanishing Bridegroom) was arresting. Similarly Oliver Knussen’s 1995 …upon one note: fantasia after Purcell – in the tradition of the great Purcell chamber homages of the past (Knussen was a former artist-in-association of the BBC SO). Like the American George Walker’s Lyric for Strings (from his 1946 First Quartet – not Barber but crafted), VW’s Greensleeves was shapely if modest. Despite Roderick Williams in clear voice, and orchestrally fleet where needed, Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring made less of an impression, somnolence drifting over proceedings. Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, from a concert at the Barbican in October 2019, was strong, Stasevska making the most of its stark oppositions, unleashing poetry and drama with conviction even if some of her slower tempos seemed deliberated (a beautiful close, mind). Nor for the first time, she showed just how good she is at steering climaxes and placing cadences. She senses and feels a paragraph.
Of necessity, the live material, from Studio 1 Maida Vale, home of the BBC SO since 1934, was for reduced, physically distanced forces without audience – forty-one players, Stephen Bryant leading. Two archive items, from the orchestra’s eightieth-birthday concert at the Barbican in 2010, conducted by David Robertson – “artist, thinker, American musical visionary”, mentored early on by Boulez and these days associated with the Juilliard – substituted for the big-band experience. Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture (which opened the orchestra’s first concert, 22 October 1930), full-bloodedly Romantic; and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (conducted by Ansermet at the Queen’s Hall in the composer’s presence, 28 January 1931, 114 musicians strong, generating “tremendous enthusiasm”). Galvanising, taut, visceral, on a rhythmic knife-edge. Tension applied positively. Imagination and contribution at 100%. A salaried, non-self-governing assemblage at its penetrating best. Here’s to its centenary.
Rautavaara: Into the heart of light
Sibelius: Scenes Historiques Op.66 – Metsästys (The Chase)
Purcell: Fantasia Upon One Note
Sibelius: Scenes Historiques Op.66 – Minnelaulu (Love Song)
Judith Weir: Still, Glowing
Oliver Knussen: …upon one note: fantasia after Purcell
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
Sibelius: Scenes Historiques Op.66 – Nostosillalla (On the Drawbridge)
George Walker: Lyric for Strings
Finzi: Let Us Garlands Bring
Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem
Wagner: Flying Dutchman Overture*
Lotta Wennäkoski: Hava
Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring*
Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Dalia Stasevska, David Robertson*
I enjoyed this amalgam strange though some of the choices were. I did not pick up the relevance of the three mood pieces by Sibelius but it allowed me to remind myself of the great Thomas Beecham’s occasional rapport with this orchestra, most notably recalled in his searing live performance of the Second Symphony at the RFH on 8 December 1954. Then my mind wanders to the Scenes Historiques and Beecham’s gorgeous recordings.
The first set of Sibelius’s Scènes historiques was programmed by Sargent in Helsinki during the 1956 visit.