Soir de fête
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra [UK premiere]
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
François-Frédéric Guy & Varduhi Yeritsyan (pianos)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Alan Sanders
Reviewed: 22 February, 2014
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
This BBC concert brought Bruno Mantovani’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra to London. The 40-year-old composer, who has been Director of the Paris Conservatoire since 2010, wrote this work in 2011 for these two soloists and who gave the world premiere in Porto. Mantovani revealed that he was motivated by the idea of a confrontation between the piano, an “orchestral instrument, itself duplicated”, and a “symphonic mass”, with the “infinite sound-perspective options” that this offers. The Concerto certainly contains many interesting and unusual sonorities, and the balance of sound shifts from keyboards to orchestra and back: sometimes the soloists are almost fighting to get a hearing, sometimes they blossom forth with only attenuated company from various orchestral soloists and groups. The Concerto places great technical demands on the pianists, which they overcame with great aplomb, and the orchestral writing (for a large ensemble with plenty of percussion) is exceedingly complex, both in terms of textures and rhythmic devices. Mantovani also makes clever use of spatial effects. What wasn’t clear was any sense of structure, or any feeling of forward motion or development; the score comprises a sequence of seemingly unconnected, contrasted episodes, and at 25 minutes in length, the work rather outstayed its welcome.
The music of Chausson is rarely heard in London’s concert halls, and it was good to come across his Soir de fête. Beautifully written for large orchestra, the work well conveys what the composer described as “the distant noise of a crowd contrasted with the calm and serene night”. Though it is a late composition, completed just a year before Chausson’s untimely death at the age of 44 in a bicycle accident, it’s clear that even then he hadn’t entirely escaped from the influence of Wagner and César Franck. Fabien Gabel drew excellent playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a sympathetic performance, and after the interval he conducted a perfectly shaped and richly satisfying account of Debussy’s Nocturnes. So often conductors fall into the trap of taking the central ‘Fêtes’ movement too quickly (maybe they seek to make a contrast with the two slow-moving outer pieces), but Gabel’s moderate tempo allowed all the music’s colour and detail to flourish. In the final ‘Sirènes’ the BBC Singers made a beautiful, ethereal sound and the refined sensuality of the music was ideally conveyed.
In a way, Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony made an incongruous final item. The programme’s Introduction sought to make a connection between the “collision of energies” in the Mantovani’s and what it suggested as the “explosive opening” of the Eighth Symphony, but fortunately Fabien Gabel opted for clarity, freshness and sprightly rhythms. All the movements were taken quite briskly, but Gabel’s ability to energise his players enhanced the music’s bluff charm without undermining its stature. Here is another gifted young conductor among many who are now coming to the fore.