BBC Symphony Orchestra/Litton Stephen Hough – Kernis, Rachmaninov & Vaughan Williams

Newly Drawn Sky [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.1
Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.4 in F minor

Stephen Hough (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 8 April, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Andrew Litton. Photograph: Danny TurnerAndrew Litton has championed new American music, has recorded Rachmaninov with Stephen Hough and performed much British music. An ideal showcase and so it proved to be.

Aaron Jay Kernis has a reputation as one of the New Romantics of American music, an “effortless crossing the boundaries between ‘high art’ and the alluring delights of pop culture”. Newly Drawn Sky is described as “a short symphony in five interconnected sections”. Describing any work as a symphony might lead to expectations of a symphonic argument and organisation; as it was this is a pleasant enough piece lasting around 17 minutes. From the opening horn melody, supported and echoed by cellos and double basses the music is well crafted, apart perhaps from the first fast section where the sound seemed congested, admittedly not difficult in the Barbican, and overall very easy on the ear. The central section allows the strings a wide-open melody, but the “particularly memorable” quiet ending over-sells the work. Nielsen’s Helios Overture tells much the same story in few minutes. In the presence of the composer the BBC Symphony Orchestra responded well to Andrew Litton’s vigorous direction.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaStephen Hough then emerged to launch into Rachmaninov with great bravura, accompanied by Andrew Litton’s wide sweeping gestures and the occasional levitation from the rostrum. The orchestra responded with warmly generous and idiomatic playing, the strings gliding into the opening melody with affecting portamento and warmth, and a touch of ‘Russian vibrato’ from solo horn. Hough and Litton caught the ebb and flow, the natural surge of Rachmaninov’s music effortlessly. The first movement was taken with a great sweep, the slow movement unrolled with richly expressive inward imagination, Litton abandoning his baton to coax moulded solos from woodwinds, especially bassoons. In the multi-faceted finale, in which Rachmaninov made the greatest changes in his 1917 revision, pianist and conductor were alive to colour and detail, taking the fast section at a pell-mell charge, without any loss of clarity or ensemble.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony in 1935 under Adrian Boult. The symphony was revived here as part of the patchy celebrations to mark the 50th-anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s death, and also, neatly, the 25th of Boult’s passing. Although the work has a reputation for violence and anger, it is also this composer’s most classically structured symphony, tightly organised; a successful performance will highlight the architecture without resort to bluster.

The composer’s own recording, made in 1937 with the BBCSO, remains the fastest (try it on Naxos Historical 8.111048 coupled with Holst conducting his Planets Suite). Litton took the opening more spaciously, emphasising the dissonance as the chords grind across one another, the second theme attacked with savage bite and fervour, if too loud for the Barbican Hall, though Andrew Litton was alive to a wide range of dynamic contrast, realising the bleak pianissimo of the passage after the reprise of the opening theme. The ghostly end of the first movement was haunting as the music wound down, violence temporarily spent. The grim stalking quality of the second movement was ably captured, the successive woodwind solos all full of character, the strings responding with playing of gripping intensity, Daniel Pailthorpe’s flute solo to close the movement, in which VW amended the final note saying “one day the Lord came down and told me it ought to be E natural” caught exactly the desolation, though Litton could have held the silence for longer.

The opening of the scherzo was sardonically jaunty, as if VW had had in mind the mood of Wilfred Owen’s poem “We walked quite friendly up to death” (as set by Britten in “War Requiem”. Violence erupted, the brass responding with snarling savagery, and the finale swept forward with great momentum and bite, the orchestra dispatching the demanding fugal writing with effortless swagger. In the final bars where the opening of the first movement returns Andrew Litton made perhaps his only miscalculation, slowing dramatically for a rhetorical final gesture, and extending the rest before the last chord. It isn’t necessary. Performances like these remind that VW was and is an international composer. Is it too much to hope that the Proms this year will include a complete cycle under numerous conductors?

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