Friday night's BBC SO concert certainly drew in a large crowd, despite the presence of two unfamiliar works: a new one by Jonathan Lloyd and Tippett's Fourth Symphony from 1977. The addition of the ever-popular pianist Stephen Hough to the lineup, playing the one of the most challenging concertos in the repertoire, Brahms' First, must have helped the numbers.
The concert kicked off with the new Lloyd piece, Old Racket. A Royal Philharmonic Society commission, the partner piece called New Balls will be premièred by the BBC SO in May. Old Racket is written for strings only (including a string quartet group tuned a quarter-tone higher), while New Balls is for woodwind and brass. In his own evasive programme notes Jonathan Lloyd talks about the influence of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, and there was definitely a nod towards the heritage of great English string writing, not just the Elgar, but Vaughan Williams and indeed Tippett in his Concerto for double string orchestra. However, despite presenting us with some very clear, tonal harmonic and melodic material, the nostalgic atmosphere he initially seemed to be creating was gradually subverted by the increasing presence of discord and rhythmic instability. The effect of this was at turns humorous, mocking, defiant and ultimately touching – with a sudden shift to a nearly major key ending this intriguing piece unexpectedly soon.
And then we came to the Brahms. At this point, I need to confess that the First Piano Concerto is my least favourite of Brahms' large-scale works. Its agonised genesis produced a work that in the best performances can seem passionate to overflowing, but in less good performances can just seem patchy and overlong. Stephen Hough's performance certainly didn't press all the buttons for me and I was left feeling unsatisfied, even at the end of the exhilarating coda. I could see that Hough was trying to the strip back some of the "romantic rubato" clutter that has dogged performances in the past, but the overall impression of the performance was rather stiff and unyielding. This is a work written in a tumultuous period of the composer's life, with the ghost of Schumann and the very physical presence of his beloved widow Clara, haunting every bar. To attempt to contain and control this passion, as if the piece were by Mozart, only serves to expose its technical deficiencies.
The long first movement suffered most from this approach. The great climaxes, which can seem on the verge of hysteria, came across as hard-edged and cold in tone. The slower sections, which should melt from one to another, seemed to lack heart due to some quite unpoetic playing from Hough. In the slow movement, the important thing is to create a rapt and rarefied atmosphere and maintain this level throughout the movement. The opening orchestral passage certainly achieved this, but with the entry of the piano, this did not continue. The subtle nuances of the long melodic phrases largely eluded Hough. In the finale, this cool-headed approach seemed most appropriate and successful, although even here, when Brahms finally injects some lighter moods and rustic touches, Hough did not respond with the lightness of touch needed.
Despite a generally disappointing performance by Hough, the BBC SO and Sir Andrew Davis sounded suitably rich and passionate, and despite my misgivings about this performance I look forward to hearing the Second Brahms Concerto with by the same performers when they are reunited in May.
Having attended the first UK performance of Tippett's Fourth Symphony with the brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Georg Solti in 1978, I was thrilled to be hearing this powerful work again in concert. Not that the work was played once and dropped: at the time it was widely felt to be one of his greatest works and was programmed many times over the next few years – but not in recent years, as is regrettably the case with much of Tippett's music. The Fourth Symphony is laid out, like Sibelius' Seventh, in one movement, but in mainly other ways it couldn't be further away from the symphonic tradition of thematic development that found its purist form in the Finnish composer's work. Tippett's structural process in this symphony, and in much of his work from the early 1960s onwards, is about presenting his material in blocks and then repeating these themes in different contexts and combinations. The bold juxtaposition of wildly contrasting material achieves its own logic by the end of the piece and a sense of a journey's end is reached.
But what about the "meaning" of the piece? Tippett made some references to it representing a life travelling from birth to death. The inclusion in the orchestra of human breathing, this time very effectively performed live by Simon Grant, certainly gives this impression, with the final sounds given to a dying breath. However, the overall effect of the symphony doesn't give the impression of a chronological description of an individual human life. Neither is it a mock aggrandizement of a "Hero's Life" as we see in the Richard Strauss symphonic poem. Tippett seems to be straining to say something more universal about the richness and joy of living.
Sir Andrew Davis is a seasoned Tippett conductor, having given the first performance of Tippett's next work, The Mask of Time. He and the BBC SO gave a thoroughly idiomatic and virtuoso performance of this marvellous work. As with the Jonathan Lloyd, the applause was deep and lasting. Programmers, please take note: we don't need Mahler and Shostakovitch in every concert.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
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