Basel Symphony Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies at Cadogan Hall – 1: Glass, Pärt and Adams

Philip Glass
Overture for 2012 [UK premiere]
Arvo Pärt
John Adams

Maki Namekawa (piano)

Basel Symphony Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies

Reviewed by: Alan Sanders

Reviewed: 24 April, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Dennis Russell Davies. Photograph: www.cami.comIt was a good start. Philip Glass’s Overture for 2012 was commissioned jointly by the Baltimore and Toronto Symphony Orchestras to celebrate the 200th-anniversary of the war of 1812 against the British and the friendship between Canada and the USA that ensued. It is a cheerful, outgoing piece, possessing imaginative orchestral effects and intriguing accents and emphases within a constant six-in-a-bar rhythm. Dennis Russell Davies’s springy conducting ensured that this beat did not become motoric, and the piece’s length of seven minutes seemed not a moment too long.

Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate was written in homage to Anish Kapoor’s sculpture Marsyas, created for Tate Modern in London and evidently had a very strong effect on the composer, inspiring a work that deals with death and suffering, in effect a lament for the living. Lamentate has a part for piano solo and Marsyas lasts for well over half an hour, the tempo consistently moderate and the basic pulse very slow. Though there are some varied ideas, they are largely sequential and don’t develop very much. The quality of invention hardly sustains such sluggish progress, and the vast differences of styles add to a bewilderingly piecemeal effect. It almost becomes a matter of spot the composer: at one point we seem to be in the slow movement of César Franck’s Symphony, and at another the pianist seems to be guiding us through a tour of Chopin and early Scriabin. There are several apparent dying, but these are followed by resuscitations. Eventually the music finally peters out.

Listeners’ attention was at once grabbed at the beginning of John Adams’s Harmonielehre (“book of harmony”) by its sheer rhythmic energy and colourful effects. The composition represents a reaction against twelve-tone music and a reflection of late-Romantic fashion and the growth of minimalism. It is in three movements; the first, unnamed, was inspired by a dream in which Adams “watched a giant supertanker take off from the surface of San Francisco Bay and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket”. Although Adams visits the shades of Mahler, Sibelius, Debussy and the young Schoenberg, he does so in such a way that these influences are cleverly and naturally absorbed into the fabric of his own music. The movement is long, but interest is sustained by the music’s vitality and rhythmic buoyancy. The second movement is entitled ‘The Anfortas [sic] Wound’. It is melancholy, reflecting the depression and feeling of impotence on the part of the victim, suffered as a result of a lesion that never heals. Ironically Adams sails into an atonal wind here and the music is highly expressive. Finally ‘Meister Eckhardt and Quackie’ mirrors another Adams dream in which his then young, nicknamed daughter was perched on the medieval master’s shoulder as they visited heavenly bodies. The music firstly represents a lullaby and then expands into an expression of happiness and high spirits. Repetitive rhythms are present, but they are transformed into an uplifting and exciting end to the work. The audience responded with rapture to the performance given by the excellent Basel Symphony Orchestra and its skilled conductor.

  • Further Basel SO concerts at Cadogan Hall on April 28 & 30
  • Cadogan Hall

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