Ara Kopikopiko

Cresswell
Ara Kopikopiko [World premiere]
Grieg
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Rachmaninov
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

Andreas Haefliger (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Porcelijn


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 29 April, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This concert featured the first commission by the Elgar Bursary, administered by the Royal Philharmonic Society and made possible by royalties from Anthony Payne’s elaboration of the ‘Third Symphony’ sketches. In the hands of Lyell Cresswell, the award got off to a worthy if hardly spectacular start.

New-Zealand born and resident in Scotland for many years, Cresswell has an ability to draw subtle and unexpected sonorities from an orthodox orchestral line-up – here without percussion or even timpani. The title is Maori for labyrinth, and Cresswell builds a suitably intricate discourse from the four pithy and distinctive ideas heard in the opening minutes. Although he describes what ensues as a 20-section piece whose constituents assume relative prominence in the manner of a mosaic, Ara Kopikopiko can also be heard as a four-section symphony in which – after the rhythmic and temporal flux of an opening ‘movement’ – the main motifs evolve intently across periods of predominantly fast then slow music, before a final sequence of rapidly accumulating velocity sees the work reach an incisive conclusion.

Ara Kopikopiko was given an attentive premiere by the BBC Symphony and David Porcelijn – satisfying and cohesive, if a little prolix at times, it offered little in the way of surprises, let alone revelations, but there was no lack of the “accessibility or integrity” that are pre-requisites for the awarding of the Elgar Bursary.

Andreas Haefliger’s account of Grieg’s Piano Concerto was a disappointment. Right from the opening flourish, this was a performance where spontaneity and risk-taking descendedinto mannerism and a calculation that hardly ever sounded convincing. The opening Allegro’s central development was a succession of poor articulation and equally poor co-ordination, held together mainly by dint of Porcelijn’s insistence on an underlying pulse, while some lazily-applied agogics robbed the cadenza of any cumulative intensity. The slow movement – elegant if with a touch of narcissism in its repose – fared better, while the finale’s central section was distinguished by rapt flute playing. Elsewhere, however, Haefliger’s refusal to give the music’s energy its head – not to mention what sounded like a memory lapse near the close of the finale’s first section – made for desultory listening.

Having done what he could to keep the performance on the rails, Porcelijn came into his own with as cohesive an account of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony as one could wish to hear. Less overt in its expression than its predecessor and less innovative in overall design than the Symphonic Dances, this is a work whose emotional complexity should not be underestimated. Having secured an appreciable intensification through the sometimes-questionable exposition repeat, Porcelijn brought out first the wrenching desolation of the development’s climax to a potent degree. Not that the ‘big tune’ was underplayed; only that it fully made its mark in the reprise – when, by tonal sleight of hand, Rachmaninov diffuses its surging nature over the ominous calm of the coda.

The second movement was superbly gauged in terms of the relationship between the undulating and restrained melancholy of its slow outer sections, and the malevolence of its central scherzo – here with a needle-sharp wit evoking Prokofiev. Part of the symphony’s fascination is the way in which its thematic interconnections are made the more audible by the extremes of expressive contrast which they serve: above all, the kinship between the motto theme and the ‘Dies Irae’ chant which makes its appearance here towards the height of the finale’s fugal development. Here and in the gradually accelerating coda, which brings the work to its decisive and scintillating close, Porcelijn secured a disciplined virtuosity that capped a performance to remember.

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