Milhaud
La creation du monde
Rouse
Der gerettete Alberich
Ravel
Menuet antique
Bernstein
Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)

Colin Currie (percussion)
James Tocco (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin
Carbon-dating the Milhaud is easy: 1920s, Paris. For me this 19-player ballet-score – one with just four strings, the viola replaced by a saxophone – doesn’t travel well. It’s stylised jazz seems contrived, it’s notated impromptu a caricature. The wafting-in of Brazilian pastoralism is more attractive – Milhaud had visited the region as a secretary to diplomat Paul Claudel – and was smoothly effected here in a rendition otherwise short on movement and edge, stiff rather than swinging. Even allowing the swathes of percussion at the front of the (extended) platform, perhaps the ensemble could have been seated closer to the audience, more approximate to a ’pit’ band, for something more immediate, intimidating even; the distance contributed to the overall blandness.
The French entrĂ©e counterpart for the second half, Ravel’s own orchestration of the piano-original Menuet antique, was altogether more enticing. Spiky and dulcet in the outer sections, this nostalgic dance is a real eye-moistener in its melancholy asides, especially in the ’trio’, its lines lucidly balanced by Slatkin, not least the plangent bassoon expression. Slatkin’s integration of sections was appositely classical rather than yielding; yet there was no lack of tenderness in this crisp and affectionate performance.
Christopher Rouse’s ’Alberich Saved’ (the composer’s translation) isn’t a percussion concerto; Rouse prefers it thought a fantasy (one written for Evelyn Glennie). With such designation the rather loose structure is better appreciated; and while percussion concertos have a tendency to be limited in scope, Rouse’s inside-knowledge ensures idiomatic writing. Beginning with the final bars of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, that is the end of the ’Ring’ cycle, the previously unaccounted for Alberich, scheming dwarf, is launched on another quest for the all-powerful trophy. Rouse’s tactile solo writing certainly suggests Alberich’s fiendish machinations. If the still-centre of reflection is overlong, and the transforming of one of Wagner’s motifs – several are alluded too – to pop music is perhaps rather contrived, Alberich as rock drummer, then what is one of Rouse’s less-strong pieces sustains its 25 minutes through wit, imagination and vivid narration. Colin Currie, the villain of the piece, gave an infectious performance of enthusiasm and bravura, backed to the hilt. The (unavoidable) platform extension accommodating Currie’s instruments somewhat compromised the soloist/orchestra perspective.
No such problem of balance in Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony, yet the now-unused front-space seemed to distance the orchestra – a visual illusion playing aural tricks. Based on WH Auden’s Eclogue, Bernstein’s use of a solo piano – representing himself, it seems, and entwining with Auden’s forsaken characters ’in search of’– and a symphonic cast might suggest ’The Age of Anxiety’ as a hybrid. Yet it is neither symphony nor concerto; it is perhaps best perceived as music-theatre enacted within traditional forms and genres, the piano the main protagonist in a drama enacted through a two-part, six-section structure. James Tocco is a veteran of the piano part, a master of its commentary and isolation; even when the writing is virtuosic and vital there was no sense of concerto-display; and what a dark, disturbing piece this is under Slatkin. From the two-clarinet dialogue to the slowly-evolving hope of ’The Epilogue’ (echoes of Ravel’s Left-hand concerto here), Slatkin’s measure of the music was unerring – the ingenious double set of seven variations (’The Seven Ages’; ’The Seven Stages’), the Bergian ’The Dirge’, its climax punctuated by stomach-kicking bass-drum thwacks, or the ’popular’ cut of the piano/percussion/slap-bass ’The Masque’, party-music both ’high’ and descending to disorientation.
The indifference or hostility that attends Bernstein’s music is to be wondered at. Whether for the concert-hall or the theatre, Bernstein left us some great music. The Second Symphony is certainly in this category, a literary-inspired symphony/concerto that feeds vivid theatre, the work of an unashamed American working within the European tradition to create something wholly personal. Having previously worked on ’The Age of Anxiety’ and recorded it, the BBCSO displayed its familiarity and confirmed Leonard Slatkin’s particularly compelling way with it – perceptive to its core, individual, and with no doubts as to the music’s validity.

  • This concert is broadcast on Monday, 25 February, at 7.30 on BBC Radio 3. Click here to Listen on-line
  • Saturday 23 February – Mark-Anthony Turnage, A Quick Blast [London premiere]; Bernstein, Symphony No.1 ’Jeremiah’ (Catherine Wyn-Rogers – mezzo-soprano); Ravel, ’Kaddisch’ from Deux melodies hebraiques (Janice Watson – soprano); Bernstein, Symphony No.3 ’Kaddish’ (Eleanor Bron – narrator; Janice Watson – soprano; BBC Symphony Chorus; London Oratory School; Schola)
  • Box Office: 020 7638 8891 www.barbican.org.uk
  • Leonard Slatkin and the BBCSO have recorded ’Jeremiah’ and ’Age of Anxiety’ for Chandos – click hear to read Steve Lomas’s review

 

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