Friday, May 27, 2022

Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra ended its 2021-22 season in an unfinished state – with Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony as he left it, in three movements (with many sketches for the Finale). Alpesh Chauhan led a healthy first movement, a little too moved-along, and – as broadcast – not always as well-balanced as needed, brass and timpani to the fore, strings sometimes eclipsed, and with some harmonic imbalance as well as skewwhiff tempo changes/transitions (add in some timpani strokes I have never heard before; we weren’t told what edition was being used, maybe a recent one from Carragan or, working alone, unlike for the committee-completed Finale, Gunnar-Cohrs). Being brass-heavy can be got-away-with in the Scherzo, fiercely stamping here, and Chauhan’s fleet and mercurial Trio was ideal. The slow movement, like the opening one, lacked consistency if not strident fortissimos; yet Chauhan also showed sensitivity to the inwardness of the music, Bruckner’s farewell to this World, as it became, and he also reminded that the Adagio was not intended to be the composer’s last word.

The concert started with the world premiere of a BBC commission, The Price of Curiosity by Richard Baker (born 1972) inspired by a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956, the director’s second film with this title) with particular reference to one of its stars, Doris Day, specifically her death a few years ago and her singing of ‘Que, sera, sera’, the latter hinted at by Baker in his new piece. The music is edgy and sinister with ominous silences, a stuttering infernal machine created, musically reminding occasionally of Thomas Adès’s Asyla. It’s engaging music, but too short (just shy of ten minutes) and up to its conclusion came across as a piece that would be double that length, welcome as such, and given the quality of the material, surely sustainable.

As centrepiece, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Stephen Hough, a scintillating but not showy rendition that focused on the piece’s ingenuity and wholeness, and with poetically lyrical shaping that avoided cloying, ‘Variation XVIII’ benefitting in particular; nor was its appearance signposted in the lead-to bars. The BBCSO was well-prepared and sympathetic to the pianist. There was devilish play in the final sections with the ’Dies irae’ in attendance and a witty turn of phrase to round things off. As a quite lovely encore Hough played a (the?) Nocturne by Paderewski, appropriately veiled in tone. Hough is now off to the Cliburn Competition.

30 Competitors announced for 2022 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Paul Hughes to step down as Director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and BBC Singers.