Total Immersion: Anders Hillborg review – deep dive into a demanding and fascinating body of work

Barbican, London
The Swedish composer’s extraordinary music was performed with virtuosity and bravura energy in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s day-long survey

‘I write pieces because fantastic musicians ask me to,” Anders Hillborg told the audience, with disarming charm, at the first concert of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion day examining his work. The Swedish composer’s attractive, eclectic, sometimes playful, often profound music is virtuosic, both in the tremendous demands it makes on its performers, and in the dexterous, even glamorous way Hillborg handles his forces, irrespective of whether he is writing instrumental duets or works for a Mahler-sized orchestra.

Martin Fröst on clarinet.
Energy and wit … Martin Fröst on clarinet. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

Three concerts given by musicians from the Guildhall School, the BBC Singers under Ragnar Rasmussen, and the BBCSO with Sakari Oramo, surveyed his chamber, choral and orchestral music respectively, ranging across his career from his earliest vocal works to the recent, large-scale Through Lost Landscapes, a BBCSO co-commission and one of several pieces receiving its UK premiere. The choral Mouyayoum, which made him famous in 1984, closed the BBC Singers’ concert in St Giles’ Cripplegate, while Peacock Tales, the unclassifiable clarinet concerto-cum-mime piece written for Martin Fröst, came at the mid-point of the BBCSO’s evening concert. In shifting pools of light, Fröst played and danced his way through it with bravura energy and wit.

Some of Hillborg’s music was deemed unperformable when it was written, though in the intervening years players and singers have more than mastered its challenges. Mouyayoum was rejected by the choir for which it was originally written, though here its shifting textures ebbed and flowed with hypnotic ease. Hillborg joked, at one point, that he despaired that his 2013 Duo for cello and piano would ever find a premiere after several players pulled out; here Guildhall musicians Ben Tarlton and Ben Smith did wonders with it, playing with extraordinary precision and insight.

High points elsewhere included Carolin Widmann’s fierce account of Hillborg’s flawed but ferocious First Violin Concerto, the mesmerising Eleven Gates, which found Oramo and the BBCSO on blazing form, and Through Lost Landscapes itself, which inveighs against our violation of our own planet in its depiction of forest wildlife under threat from environmental destruction. Fascinating, all of it.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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