Night Ferry [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto in D, Op.13
Symphony No.1 in A flat, Op.55
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 11 January, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra kicked off the ‘13’ part of its 2012-13 season with a generous and stimulating programme, opening with Anna Clyne’s Night Ferry, first-performed last February by its commissioners, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti. Clyne, born 1980 in London and now resident in the States, hurls the listener immediately into a maelstrom, the orchestra whirling and swirling, creating a thrilling stormy seascape. However picturesque the title might seem, it is not literal; this particular “Night Ferry” is found in Seamus Heaney’s Elegy, written in tribute and related to the American poet Robert Lowell. He suffered from manic depression, as did Schubert (his music performed either side of the Clyne in Chicago) who was a slave to cyclothymia and its mood-swings. Such volatility informs Clyne’s score, which retains urgency even in slower passages, sometimes drunkenly slurred. The tempest is all-encompassing, the waves are rough, and the emotions expressed compelling. The music, with chordal progressions at one point reminding of Britten’s Billy Budd – no doubt a serendipitous connection –, is powerful in its evocation and the orchestration is imaginative (the forces large but not extravagant), sometimes hard-edged if romantically enveloping and with a momentum that is irresistible. From somewhere comes the softest music, no doubt suggestive of one of the “enchanted worlds” the composer cites, beautifully written and expressed for woodwinds and brass, the strings silent, as they will be for the rest of the piece. On a first hearing there seemed to be more to come – there wasn’t – and if this somewhat disappointed, it did so only in relation to the excellence and command of the score as a whole, which, in its creation, Clyne painted as well as notated while embracing Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Doré illustrations, and lines by Rumi. The BBCSO responded with alacrity to the unstinting Andrew Litton, your reviewer making a note to seek out more of Anna Clyne’s catalogue (not least the well-received orchestral <<rewind<<). With apologies for the pun, the 20-minute Night Ferry should travel far, and the composer seemed delighted with this UK premiere performance.
On 18 August 1938, the 25-year-old Benjamin Britten was the soloist in the premiere of his Piano Concerto – at the Proms with Sir Henry Wood. Benjamin Grosvenor is just a few years younger than Britten was then. The opening ‘Toccata’ was propulsive and glittering, on a par tempo-wise with Sviatoslav Richter’s Decca recording, the composer conducting; Grosvenor, technically impeccable, didn’t really establish enough character, seemingly content to be ‘first among equals’ with a crisply detailed and flamboyant orchestra, although he came into his own with the cadenza, a lexicon of pianistic challenges. The middle movements, respectively a ‘Waltz’ and an ‘Impromptu’, the latter a replacement in 1945 for the original third movement, came off well, the former launched by a fine viola solo from Norbert Blume, the latter bringing real soul from Grosvenor. The march of the finale seemed hollow, as the composer intended, heard amidst shadows and melancholia – Britten was quite a diarist in his music and the 1930s were troubled times – a grotesque sequence, a sinister cartoon, but the coda sped away here and rather undid much that had been illuminating and enjoyable. Britten was a wonderful and painterly pianist, his Piano Concerto a showpiece for his talents, if not without irony and deadpan wit, written in, and which Grosvenor – intelligent and respectful – rightly did not underline. Litton and the BBCSO were vibrant partners, sometimes usurpers.
Encores come along a little too easily these days; and less than spontaneously. This one arrived far too quickly in relation to the main work finishing, but Abram Chasins’s Prelude No.14 proved short and sweet, with a suggestion of Scriabin, if far simpler. New York-born pianist-composer Chasins (1903-1987) may not be a household name but Stokowski conducted his Second Piano Concerto and Cherkassky recorded his Three Chinese Pieces. Grosvenor played the Prelude with touching sensitivity while Litton sat at the piano that had been required for the Clyne.
Andrew Litton is quite a champion of English music, particularly William Walton, and is a familiar face in the UK to where he brings his Bergen Philharmonic on tour at the very beginning of February. In the meantime he conducted a superb account of Elgar’s magnificent First Symphony, as idiomatic as it was personal (and a regular work in the BBCSO’s repertoire, as recently as last year’s BBC Proms under Martyn Brabbins). The slow introduction was nobilmente (as marked), such spaciousness maintained in the Allegro, cannily paced to embrace crusade and reflection, Litton alive to the big gestures (not least tension-filled accelerations) and fantasy-tinged dissolves. The scherzo had militaristic zeal, its contrast being the great (and thematically related) Adagio, Litton (now baton-less) moulding this most-heavenly and -deepest of slow movements to eloquent expression, broadening effectively for the closing bars, Elgar at his most confidential; this was rapt and spellbinding music-making. With the finale, Litton deliberated as he had in the first movement, but with nostrils flaring, the tempo embracing weighty, implacable tread, the wonderment of a mountaintop view and the triumphant coda. Litton, making much play with antiphonal violins (Brabbins similarly), the arrangement that Elgar knew and wrote for, made no secret of his love for this music without smothering it, and not forgetting that this score is engraved with one of composition’s most-hallowed titles, that of Symphony.