Music: BBC SO Neruda Songs Barbican

The opening concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on Friday 1 October 2010′ had a strong programmatic thread running through it. And like all good concerts, the programme spoke on more levels than merely just quality of the playing or the interpretation of the music.

The concert’s undeniable success was in spotlighting two different takes on death. Wagner doesn’t so much confront the darkness so much as embrace it. His obsession with love and death summed up exquisitely in the Prelude and Liebstod from Tristan and Isolde.

But Wagner’s music – all encompassing as it is – is hugely self-indulgent, or at least feels that way. At other times the composer’s willingness to be public about the intensity of his emotions in his music can feel intimidating. I’m getting close to loving Wagner. I haven’t quite got to that point yet.

In comparison, the second work on the programme by Peter Lieberson was a stark contrast in terms of intimacy. His setting of five sonnets by Pablo Neruda, as beautiful and moving as it was manageable in terms of scale. Scored for voice, strings and harp this was a slightly less enormous kind of love.

The work didn’t suffer because of it. More, on a first listen – this was the UK premiere – Lieberson simple yet effective settings touched deftly.

Soloist mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was a great choice. Her rich, engulfing tone combined with the orchestrations of Lierbson’s music created a sound world difficult to leave behind, reinforcing both composer, his muse, the work’s initial performer and the intensely personal sentiment. A rare achievement for a piece of contemporary music.

Here’s an audioboo during the concert interval.

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