new balls [Royal Philharmonic Society Elgar Bursary commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Stephen Hough (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 17 May, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s welcome (and not untimely) focus on the symphonies and concertos of Michael Tippett reached its conclusion here; heard as it was alongside the last of Stephen Hough’s appearances with the orchestra this season as well as the second of Jonathan Lloyd’s two commissions for the BBCSO’s strings and winds respectively.
Although he has seemingly been ‘out of the picture’ for some years, Lloyd has been active on the periphery of the new music scene – where his distinctive sense of the ironic and absurd has no doubt been put to productive use. Such qualities were audibly to the fore in new balls (2013) – the companion piece to old racket that the BBCSO strings premiered last month, and which inhabited a similar world of formal punning and expressive non-sequitur. The arrangement of brasses and woodwinds – in a wide semi-circle with piccolo and flute placed slightly to the foreground, which became more noticeable when they stood to present their solos – suggested a lineage through Birtwistle back to Stravinsky, yet Lloyd’s idiom is more closely aligned with such alternatives of the wind repertoire such as Ligeti’s Ten Pieces and even Berio’s Opus Number Zoo in its predilection for barbed humour verging on but refraining from anarchy. Its 18 minutes – including some 20 seconds of applause after a ‘false ending’ – passed eventfully on the way to the mock-decisive close.
All of which certainly placed Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto (1881) in an unlikely new perspective. Often viewed as a symphonic conception, it is essentially chamber music writ large and Stephen Hough seemed intent on emphasising this with a performance such as favoured a close integration between piano and orchestra – the first movement, in particular, playing down its element of rhetoric in preference for an expressive poise which, while not lacking forward momentum, tended to even-out the subtle though insistent contrasts of mood that inform this most deceptively discursive of Brahms’s sonata entities. The second-movement scherzo then lacked nothing in immediacy, for all that its passionate nature sounded a little too reined-in at the transition into the freely evolving trio, while the coda was merely decisive rather than fatalistic. The remaining two movements were more consistently interpreted: the Andante – its heartfelt cello melody eloquently rendered by Susan Monks – unfolding with a naturalness that drew the agitated central section and then the inward transition back to the main theme into a seamless and even spontaneous-sounding whole; after which, the finale had requisite lightness of touch without seeming insubstantial or anti-climactic. Hough was at something near his best – phrasing some of Brahms’s most equable ideas with a poise and wit that saw this always-appealing movement through to its resolute close.
A further enhancement of this account was James Gaffigan’s undemonstrative yet attentive direction – a quality that duly came into its own in Tippett’s First Symphony (1945). Rather passed over in its early years, this work enjoys only an occasional hearing (has it been heard in London these past two decades?), though Gaffigan made a persuasive case for its frequent revival – not least the opening movement whose profusion of interconnected ideas was finely channelled into its quirky yet cohesive design. The Adagio is the soulful heart of a piece which bears the vicissitudes of war more audibly than even its composer seems to have known; Gaffigan had the measure of a music that embraces variations, passacaglia and even palindrome with discreet mastery. After which, the scherzo lacked little in (cross-)rhythmic agility or, in its central trio, that airborne melodic rapture the composer was to make his own, while the finale steered a confident course through its tensile double fugue and on to a bracing apotheosis. The final bars have long attracted speculation in terms of what they might imply about Tippett’s reaction to the cessation of war and how that might be embodied in musical terms. Suffice to say that Gaffigan secured a tapering-off of activity, as combined bass-drum and timpani strokes made their mark, which felt affirmative in its lack of closure as rarely before.