Airs No Oceans Keep

Five Dickinson Settings [World premiere]
this dirty little heart [World premiere]
Colomina ì Bosch
Yellow Light [World premiere]

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Robin O’Neill

The Bartered Bride – Overture
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Symphony No.8 in G, Op.88

Maria João Pires (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mikhail Pletnev


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 15 June, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In the early-evening “Music of Today” concert, Julian Anderson (Artistic Director of MOT) spoke to the three young composers. Each had been assigned (by Anderson) the compositional task of an Emily Dickinson ‘theme’ (“Airs No Oceans Keep” being the concert’s title) and that they must score for a specific ensemble of violin, viola, oboe/cor anglais, bassoon/contrabassoon, and two harps.

Paul-Isaac Franks (born 1983) linked Dickinson’s ‘insect’ poetry into a wholly captivating 10-minute piece, one with a grateful and fluid vocal line and atmospheric use of instruments, the harps adding a bee-like buzz.

Emily Hall (born 1978) dispensed with the singer in her 8-minute this dirty little heart and had the two harps amplified. She said she wanted the harps at the “centre” of things. This could have been achieved without the electronics, but presumably the composer wished for the dried-out timbres that emerged, which seemed appropriate to a love-poem “loaded with regret and guilt” (Hall). Her piece took a while to establish itself but had become quite compelling by its close.

Òscar Colomina ì Bosch (born 1977) completed the ‘free, just turn up’ event (the next MOT is on 5 October, and features Wolfgang Rihm) with “Yellow Light”. This began with a cadenza for the harps that ‘carried’ perfectly well without electronic intervention, the familiar richness and resonance of the instrument restored. During the spoken introduction, a Mahlerian reference was highlighted; if this was not necessarily apparent (to this listener), the 12-minute work was well contrasted, volatile even, and once again seemed a ‘grateful’ sing.

Three fine pieces, then, the Franks especially rewarding. Elizabeth Atherton’s lyrical intensity added much to the creations of his work and that of Colomina ì Bosch, and the sextet of Philharmonia musicians under Robin O’Neill addressed the complexity of these premieres with polish and appreciation.

Half-an-hour later Mikhail Pletnev opened the ‘main’ concert with a fizzing account of the overture to “The Bartered Bride”, yet with an attention to detail and balance, and pin-point articulation, that was impeccable.

Maria João Pires is the antithesis to Pletnev when it comes to interpreting Mozart. Where he, as a pianist, is interventionist and wilful, she is straightforward, but never dull or pedantic, her highlighting of events always seeming to be ingrained to the music. Pletnev was a generous accompanist, ensuring that the orchestral playing was vivid in itself and also faithful to the soloist. Pires offered playing that was pellucid, thoughtful and inward; nowhere more so than in the broadly paced Adagio that seemed to suspend time over its eloquent and deeply felt course.

After the interval, which gave time for the two violin sections to become antiphonal and the double basses to travel 180 degrees to huddle into the platform’s left-hand corner, Pletnev led a fiery and flexible reading of Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Less pastoral and relaxed than is the ‘norm’ for this work, Pletnev made the opening bars ‘slow’ and slower still on their return. Punctuation was extended, accents were vicious, and the flow was halted by sign-posting rallentandos and divisive pauses. The Adagio was rhapsodised over, became over-ethereal and distended, and was brushed aside by an Allegretto grazioso that was neither of these markings; the woodwinds would surely have welcomed more time to shape rather than ‘fit in’ their notes. The finale’s opening fanfare was deliberated, the timpani suggested a funeral march and Pletnev played up the movement’s contrasts with a vengeance. The coda was more dogged than exuberant.

A personal viewpoint, then, played with conviction and character, which at many points seemed at-odds with the music’s spontaneity. Too calculated, in other words, but it was always interesting, sometimes convincing, sometimes not, and occasionally infuriating. But that’s good!

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