Britain is a country not often historically associated with great composers, repertoire or music: apart from the occasional early music programme peppered with Purcell or production of Peter Grimes, there is a great tendency to overlook British classical music, both past and present, in favour of its Germanic and Slavic cousins. The BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Andrew Litton at the helm, clearly decided it was time to challenge that state of affairs, and certainly proved (to me, if no-one else) that British music is something we need to delve into far more often, both in terms of repertoire and performers.
Enter pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, just into his twenties and already quickly acquiring a status as one of Britain's up-and-coming stars in the classical music world, ready to tackle the Britten Piano Concerto (which he also performed with the National Youth Orchestra 18 months previously at the BBC Proms). The first movement was full of panache and wit, delightfully whimsical and yet never uncontrolled. The balance was a little orchestra-heavy at the very beginning, but as the movement progressed, the piano shone through with an assured yet not overbearing power, and the cadenza was simply sublime, Grosvenor ricocheting between his hands in Ravelian glissandi and toying with the music kaleidoscopically. The second movement felt liable to teeter on the edge of chaos somewhat, Britten's pleasantly disconcerting imbalance in rhythm almost tipping too far under Litton's baton, but the interpretation of both orchestra and soloist still oozed charm and wit.
The third movement, in this case the revised Impromptu which Britten substituted for his earlier version of the movement, was beautifully sonorous, but needed a little more direction at the beginning – once it had found its stride, however, the performance was atmospheric and competently handled. The final movement recaptured the magic of the first entirely, Grosvenor bounding across the keyboard in triumph – and deservedly so given the rapturous applause he earned. Grosvenor's encore, Abram Chasins' Prelude no. 14 in E flat minor, was a delicious contrast in flavour to such a bravura concerto, handled with supreme tonal control and a quality of sound that simply melted in the mouth.
The bulk of the program was occupied by Elgar's Symphony no. 1, unsurprising given Elgar's monumental status in British music (he was, after all, only recently removed from our twenty pound notes!). The broad, regal opening rang through the hall with earnest simplicity, the orchestra swelling to a noble and patriotic repetition of the theme. The meanderings of the orchestra were intriguing, the tumultuous swirl of different colours looping in so many different, intangible directions. There were brief spells when it felt a little too easy to be lost in the cloud of colour, rather than led through it, but on the whole the different characters and themes were well shaped and considered. The second movement opened with a gratifying mix of fury and tongue-in-cheek humour, the flurries of notes building to a Shostakovich-like march. The slow dissipation of the themes lost energy a little too quickly, lapsing a little too far and as a result not quite maintaining the momentum set up earlier on. The third movement had a charming sweep in places, though once again, needed a little more propulsion in others. However, despite the need for a little more direction, the tone was rich and molten throughout. The final movement was radiant with pure excitement, drawing the themes together into a neat, climactic bundle, bursting with energy.
But as well as exploring more established British composers, the concert also gave a chance to explore the UK première of a work by a contemporary British composer Anna Clyne. Night Ferry, an orchestral work first premièred by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last year, is a work based around the theme of manic depression, particularly explored with reference to Schubert. During the compositional process, Clyne painted canvases littered with poetic quotes, and Clyne's penchant for the visual came across in her music: the opening rolls of strings, passing from left to right in sea-sick waves, gave both the mental instability and maritime themes a kinaesthetic manifestation as well as an aural one. The fevered tremolos ripped through the body with assured uncertainty; the brief glimpses of pure, undiluted melody floated in the otherwise head-twisting shiver of queasy indecision. There were brief moments where the music felt a little too easy, where the construction was just briefly a little too normal given Clyne's otherwise stunning harmonic palette, but on the whole, the balance of discomfort and beauty was expertly handled, and the piece (and its performance) a testament to the fact that British music is still most definitely alive and kicking, and deserves a far more extensive appreciation on the world stage.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican © Lara Platman