Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Prospero’s Rooms [UK premiere]
Concerto for Orchestra
Steven Osborne (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 24 April, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
For all its profile in the US, the music of Christopher Rouse has made precious little headway in the UK (has there even been a professional performance here since Emanuel Ax gave the premiere of his Seeing at the Proms in 2001?). More is the pity, as Rouse’s frequently visceral yet always resourceful manner and virtuosic handling of the orchestra have resulted in a number of pieces which ought to be part of the contemporary repertoire. This BBC Symphony Orchestra concert provided a modicum of redress in the guise of Prospero’s Rooms (2012).
The composer has described this short though eventful work as the overture to an unwritten (and seemingly never to be written) opera on Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death – specifically the vain Prince Prospero, whose extreme measures to prevent his castle being infiltrated by, and his friends’ demise, at the hands of the Red Death are ultimately in vain. Rouse renders this scenario via a piece part-way between a concert overture and tone poem – genres most often overlooked on programmes these days, yet which are more than viable when treated with this degree of imagination: its intensifying depiction of the castle’s seven rooms underpinned by remorseless ticking of an ebony clock and capped by the appearance of death. The BBC SO responded to this graphically descriptive music with suitable aplomb.
An unusually planned though eminently worthwhile concert had begun with Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto (1809), in which Steven Osborne (replacing Jonathan Biss at short notice) gave notice of the pianism – commanding and inquiring by turns – that regularly distinguishes his performances. Imperiously launched, the opening Allegro unfolded at a purposeful tempo that yet allowed room for more subtle asides – not least in the stealthy developmental passage between the breath-catching ‘anti-cadenza’ and decisive coda. The variations of the central Adagio were exquisitely rendered with no hint of preciousness – then, after an arresting transition, the finale evinced the required energy and humour on the way to a teasing wind-down over timpani before the coruscating closing flourish.
A performance, then, that satisfied for all its occasional waywardness. Osborne responded to applause with a seemingly impromptu take on the aphoristic Scherzo of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata – the transition back to the opening theme bristling with anarchic wit.
After the Rouse, the second half concluded with Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra (1954) and a testing assignment that Polish-born conductor Michał Nesterowicz (standing in for an indisposed Joshua Weilerstein) met with telling conviction. Whether in the steadily mounting tension then limpid withdrawal of the ‘Intrada’, the alternating whimsy and stridency of the ‘Capriccio notturno ed Arioso’, then the lengthy yet riveting unfolding of the final movement with its implacable ‘Passacaglia’, headlong ‘Toccata’ and initially pensive ‘Corale’ that built to an electrifying apotheosis – this was assuredly a reading to savour of a piece whose way of making concessions without compromise has been emulated by many but equalled by few. A notable London debut, moreover, for Nesterowicz – of whom much more will surely be heard.