BBCSO/Oramo – review

Barbican, London
Colin Matthews' commission for the BBCSO seems like a memorial to what might have been but perhaps never was

Traces Remain, Colin Matthews' commission for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, takes its name from a collection of essays by the historian and biographer Charles Nicholl. Like Matthews' 20-minute piece, Nicholl's book deals with historical shards, all that survives today of former events, such as the song Woods, Rocks and Mountains by Robert Johnson (the Jacobean lutenist, not the delta bluesman) that may or may not have been composed for a lost Shakespeare play, apparently based on an episode from Don Quixote.

Johnson's song underpins Matthews' score, finally emerging more or less intact in its elegiac closing pages. But other similarly enigmatic links to the intangible past are woven into its textures, too – Schoenberg's 1912 orchestration of Beethoven's Adelaide; unused sketches for Mahler's 10th Symphony; material that might have been intended for Sibelius's Eighth.

Those borrowings are sometimes explicit, sometimes merely hints. Occasionally, they appear as if in quotation marks, which jars a bit, but mostly they are more seamlessly assimilated. It's the world of Mahler's unfinished final symphony (the performing version of which Matthews worked on, assisting Deryck Cooke) that seems to permeate much of Traces Remain, tinting its harmonies and its colours. The orchestra has the violins divided into three, with two bass and one contrabass clarinet darkening the textures; the tempo is predominantly measured – a central faster section is very brief – and the whole work seems like a memorial to what might have been but perhaps never was.

Sakari Oramo conducted the perfectly judged premiere, framing it with Schumann's Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra and Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The Schumann, dashingly played by the BBCSO's horn section led by principal Martin Owen, made an exuberant opener; the symphony, fleet, business-like and never self-consciously epic, provided a good demonstration of how this orchestra is already thriving in Oramo's care.

Available to listen again on iPlayer until 15 January.

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Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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