Christopher Rouse has built a reputation over the last decade for orchestral works of depth and impact. Concertos have formed a central part of his recent output, though his approach to the genre is refreshingly unorthodox - never more so than in Seeing (1998), written for and dedicated to tonight’s soloist. What the composer describes as a ’meditation on madness’ runs continuously for just over half an hour – there are four main sections framed by an assaultive series of exchanges between soloist and orchestra which feature the work’s material in essence.
Much of this material is derived directly from Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, a work that Emanuel Ax has always refrained from playing in public. Snatches of its first movement pervade the musical discourse towards the close of the powerful ’allegro’ section, undermining the music’s purpose with a pointer to the psychosis which was eventually to overwhelm the composer. Schumann’s intermezzo even more ominously inflects the course of Rouse’s own ’intermezzo’ section, while both movements are drawn into the maelstrom of the following ’scherzo’ as the music reaches a desperate culmination.
As one of the few classical composers with a rounded perspective on the late ’60s/early ’70s heyday of rock music, it was not surprising that a chance return to an album by San Francisco band, Moby Grape, with its luminous final song ’Seeing’, by guitarist Skip Spence, should chime with Rouse’s work on his ’concerto’.
Hearing that Spence had spent much of his life in mental institutions made an inevitable corollary with Schumann’s last years. The song-title became that of Rouse’s work, while the song’s opening chord sequence is transmuted into the chorale-like theme emerging towards the close of Seeing’s lengthy slow section - the sound of trombones playing directly onto timpani, producing a tocsin-like effect, the most striking of numerous imaginative orchestral touches. Cathartic too, except that the opening gestures return and a final Schumann fragment concludes the work with poignant finality.
Ax gave his all in a dedicated and admirably prepared performance, with a committed orchestral response unerringly marshalled by Slatkin.
Earlier, the BBC Symphony sounded attentive if uninvolved in Britten’s reduction of the second movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, a curiosity from Britten’s American years with, paradoxically, an almost Elgarian quaintness.
The performance of Mahler Five was a veritable curate’s egg. Listless and unfocussed in the opening ’Trauermarsch’, the pervasive trumpet motif never sounding the same way twice, it settled down to a purposeful and gritty rendering of the second movement, spoiled by a poorly co-ordinated coda.
Some attractively intimate playing in the ’ländler’ aside, the central scherzo was disappointingly pedestrian, only for Slatkin to pull out the stops in a cohesive, intense and unsentimental account of the famous ’adagietto’ - the slight broadening at the return of the main theme silencing even the professional coughers.
Slatkin had the measure of the finale too, though a mismatch in tempi effectively split the reprise of the chorale theme in two - impeding the overall momentum when it mattered most. Some persuasive playing, though not the best night the brass will have this season, and fair evidence of an interpretation that could yet take wing.
This concert is broadcast again by BBC Radio 3 on Friday, 27 July, at 2 o’clock