The Chairman Dances
Symphony No.8 in C minor, Op.65
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 22 March, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
It may have been that July 2006 marked Alexander Vedernikov’s London debut, leading a troupe from the Bolshoi Theatre (when he was music director) in Boris Godunov and The Fiery Angel, both impressively staged at Covent Garden. Since then in the capital he has conducted the BBC Symphony and London Philharmonic orchestras several times each and always with excellence. Returning here to the nation’s broadcaster, this may well count as Vedernikov’s finest London concert to date. He worked wonders with John Adams’s ‘foxtrot for orchestra’ (derived from his opera Nixon in China), which chugged away brightly if repetitively, mixing Copland’s The Red Pony and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, and benefitting from Vedernikov’s operatic flair, the BBCSO’s precise playing and the composer’s at-last change to something different, now smoochy and edgy before winding down like a 78rpm record having run out of mechanism.
Michael Tippett composed his Piano Concerto in response to hearing Walter Gieseking essay Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4. Completed in 1955 the first performance featured Louis Kentner who replaced Julius Katchen, the latter seemingly finding the piano-writing unplayable (or maybe it perplexed him). The concerto opens with an enchanted flute melody, the pianist ‘first among equals’ as the music vies between rapture and pastoralism (echoes of the recently completed The Midsummer Marriage), the lyrical-heroic style an admirable corollary to the Beethoven.
Steven Osborne is a seasoned Tippett interpreter (and he has recorded the Concerto and the four Sonatas for Hyperion). Here he gave a reading of astonishing compassion and boldness, technically unblemished, the first movement’s momentum seamlessly gathered to the cadenza in which the celesta magically contributes, as elsewhere, suggestive of the fairy world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and before Britten realised his operatic version of it (first-performed in 1960). The slow movement seems like a continuum of the first, if viewed from a different angle, music of ravishing intense beauty and seductive refrains, the pianist invited to explore variants of them, which Osborne did with spellbinding sensitivity. The finale, upbeat and uplifting, found Osborne doing an Erroll Garner impression, uninhibited, the rhythms lifting off the page and the conclusion being of irresistible vigour. But Tippett is an ‘equal rights’ composer and this work needs a cooperative, equally sympathetic and confident orchestra, the BBCSO in generous form, unfazed by the many solos and counterpoints (great horns in the slow movement) and ecstatic releases. With Vedernikov seemingly smitten by Tippett’s inimitable and intoxicating invention all the musicians came together to raise the profile of this wonderful piece even higher.
Shostakovich’s five-movement Eighth Symphony is from 1943. From the off Vedernikov made implicit the music’s description of tragedy, an uncompromising revealing of war crimes and man’s inhumanity to man, the lengthy first movement searched for its dark brooding, chill, brutal progression and percussion-led eruption, complemented by a deeply responsive and consoling cor anglais lament from Alison Teale. After which the first scherzo screamed pain and developed many ironic sleights of hands, while the second one, ostinato-sustained, took on a maniacal and physical thrill, Gareth Bimson strutting a suitably brazen trumpet solo, Vedernikov dancing along as if demobbed. After another series of shattering percussion crescendos, the greatest contrast arrives, a subterranean maze of a Largo, the most-interior thoughts here made mesmerising – still, hypnotic – to which contributions from horn, clarinet and flute were models of musicianship. With the finale there are signs of green shoots, the movement bringing exorcism and a long coda of hopeful if questioning contemplation, brought off here with concern and fading to silence.
In this utterly compelling (63-minute) performance, Vedernikov brought unequivocal shape and direction to a Symphony that can seem overblown and empty; not a bit of that here as he lived the music, sometimes stood back from it, alternating a mix of ‘proper’ conducting with something off the cuff, and in doing so aligning himself to the charismatic and maverick Rozhdestvensky. Certainly Vedernikov has a formed a close rapport with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, magnificently responsive here, with future appearances from this estimable conductor keenly anticipated.