Concert: Schumann, Colin Matthews and Beethoven - BBCSO Oramo

Concert - 8 January 2014

Schumann: Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra
Colin Matthews: Traces Remain (BBC commission: world premiere)
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 in E flat major, 'Eroica'

Martin Owen, Michael Murray, Andrew Antcliff and Nicholas Hougham (horns)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

I dread going to the Barbican for concerts - I don't go there often enough to know my way around but I've been lost often enough to know it's going to be a stress.  The trip from the tube is fraught - you'd think one of the two most used concert halls in London would be better signposted.  I was late getting a ticket and didn't have time to get a programme.  Sadly many of the circle seats which were shown as sold on the website were empty when the concert started - season tickets perhaps but the hall was slightly less than half full for a performance of Beethoven's Eroica - for goodness sake people!  Given the dross that's pumped out by most orchestras to keep punters bums on seats I guess I shouldn't be surprised. But hey ho - at least it meant I was not surrounded by people when the concert began....though close enough to hear the muttering and laughing mid-music from the couple along the row.

Schumann's Konzertstucke for Four Horns is a very occasional concert item - not least because I suspect - it's hard to get 4 hornists who are up for it and a management to pay them for not very much music.  It's a bravura piece and it was done well enough - Oramo knowing how to make the most of Schumann's lyricism.  The soloists were fine though only one of them looked as though he was enjoying himself.  There were plenty of horn players and horn fans in the audience to cheer it to the rafters but frankly it's content seems to me to be quite mild for Schumann.

The real meat in this concert as it turned out was Colin Matthews' new piece Traces Remain.  I enjoyed the uninformed first hearing and maintained a disinterest in views on the piece until after I'd given in a second hearing on iPlayer.  It sets off with an atmospheric presence engaging the listener in a moving, purposeful soundscape which is intriguing and broadly familiar.  The peice is split into three movements of different character bring variety and the themes return and textures are recalled subtly so it has a familiar security without slipping into a well used form.  As it progresses we hear fragments as though behind a veil, partial and partially obscured, and yet we get enough to trigger some memory or association.  A simple form in the winds harks back to more ancient music - neo-classical I suspect but by whom I didn't know and it doesn't matter.  Later on fragments in a lush late Romantic vein (more clearly Mahlerian) are glimpsed.  All the movement in this piece is done against familiar figures from the first section and a soft tread of a footfall as though on gravel or old leaves (achieved with newspaper scrunched up).  I loved this piece - a heavy weight of modern "meaning" wasn't thrust into my mind from the off - though it undoubtedly has depths and I heard it half a dozen times before it disappeared off iPlayer.  It is a listener's piece and somehow captures a middle age listeners "classical sound world" before we started shouting at the radio or struggling to piece together what this odd noises "mean" in the modern genres.  Matthews is to be congratulated on the engaging complexity and I enjoyed peeling back it's layers. Traces Remain indeed but much is remembered.

After the break we had Oramo's take on one of the great symphonies in the repertoire.  There's not much left to say about the symphony that does not require footnotes and peer group review except perhaps that any performance should always be an event and by that yard stick this performance succeeded.  Everything did what it should and the BBCSO acquitted themselves well and were attuned, if not always attentive to Oramo's every nuance.  As I said elsewhere back in the Summer - they don't look at him much. 

I had an off-centre view and he's beaming smile is a steadfast feature until his face drops to intense concentration and he whips the orchestra into a frenzy.  His reading was very slick and enjoyable and a bit old-fashioned and conservative in my view.

Some years ago I spent a summer - on and off - listening to seven Eroica recordings from great conductors of the past and present: 2 by Toscanini, Karajan, Klemperer, Monteux, Furtwangler and Zinman.  In comparing this collection of great readings an astonishing range of ways they presented Beethoven's vision but that the way forward was always dramatic.  Much as I enjoyed Oramo's reading for is panache and flow, that sense of drama wasn't there - the taut juxtaposition of voices in the first movement worked through with a clockwork precision, the three jaw dropping episodes in the funeral march were executed too beautifully and the sheer scale of the finale didn't impose upon us.  In short this was a model reading but it held too little adventure for me.

The reading showed that the BBC SO winds and brass aren't quite as united in tone and acuity as their Manchester counterparts.  The large string section was bold and exciting but too large for the balance (or maybe the hall) and yet were lacking in those moments of drama where one wants a powerful kick back such as the second interpolation in the funeral march.  For those who are interested in such things - Oramo maintained the trumpets added by Wagner in the first movement coda, the violins were not split left and right, and though there were pairs of woodwind there were four horns.

The audience in the hall and some of the critics I happened to glance at enjoyed it a lot: but the Matthews piece is the one to talk about from this concert.


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