BBCSO/Alpesh Chauhan with Stephen Hough

Richard Baker
The Price of Curiosity [BBC commission: world premiere]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Symphony No.9 in D-minor
Stephen Hough (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Alpesh Chauhan

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 27 May, 2022
Venue: Barbican, London

The last time I heard this young, gifted Birmingham conductor at work was also with the BBCSO, in their Terezin Immersion Day in January. He was impressive – completely on top of a variety of scores, with a sure stylistic understanding, and with an equally easy rapport with the musicians in front of him.

Chauhan was similarly on the case at this concert, which opened with the thoroughly prepared premiere of Richard Baker’s The Price of Curiosity. The fifty-year-old composer has played a significant role as a conductor of contemporary music and opera over much of the past twenty years, and his own music has a disarmingly direct way of drawing the listener into complex concepts, of a type you wouldn’t automatically associate with musical treatment. The Price of Curiosity is based on a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) when James Stewart’s Ben drugs Doris Day’s Jo to soften the blow of their son’s kidnap. The film is also famous for the concert at the Royal Albert Hall, during which a single cymbal clash masks an assassin’s gunshot, and even more famous for introducing the unforgettable Doris Day song ‘Que sera, sera’. Baker’s scoring in this nine-minute work is meticulous, and he opens it with a graphically evocative passage as Day succumbs to the drugs. Baker also imitates the minutiae of speech rhythm and inflection in great, brilliantly executed detail, and the piece includes shadowy references to the song. Baker’s absorbing new piece suggests as much as it states, and, along with a quirky sensibility, it shows he has a direct line to the powers of memory and association.

Stephen Hough’s Hyperion recordings of Rachmaninov is a modern classic, and this performance of the Rhapsody brought the same dazzling, perceptive freshness to Rachmaninov’s inexhaustible sequence of Variations on the Paganini Caprice that has exercised many a composer. Hough was up for all the games the composer has up his sleeve in his intricately constructed set, which flags up anything from the ancient ‘Dies irae’ chant, to Ravel in magical mode, to Gershwin the metropolitan lounge-lizard, even a flash of minimalism. Chauhan and the BBCSO offered a mercurial counterweight with some excellent playing, while Hough stayed in or under the orchestral texture, before unequivocally making the case for the famous Variation XVIII as the work’s destination. The Rhapsody may be familiar, but Hough reminded us with his uncanny connective ease of its remarkable originality. His encore was the lovely Nocturne Opus 16/4 by Paderewski.

Chauhan says he reveres Bruckner, and there were ample signs of his devotion in this performance of the unfinished Symphony No.9. As is still the norm, Chauhan considered the three movements as complete in themselves. I had reservations about balance, especially between brass and woodwind, in the first movement. Chauhan completely gets the point of Bruckner’s tempos being underpinned by a more measured pace, so even a couple of rather overheated accelerandos were contained. Less certain was the way in which Bruckner’s individual paragraphs didn’t always speak to each other, so that the flow became a bit episodic.The Adagio, though, was superb. Balance was more secure, with Chauhan’s expansive, mobile phrasing encouraging an orchestral transparency that, as has been said of Parsifal, glowed from within. Best of all was Chauhan’s approach to the climactic catastrophe – the bleak turn into the unknown, the vain hope that things may turn out right after all, the thresholds passed, the points of no return, and the squaring up to the inevitable non-revelation of that dominant-thirteenth chord (every note making its baleful presence felt). What a terrible moment. And what was Bruckner telling us? Just as skillful was the way Chauhan guided the music to recover, a bit, from the shock to deliver some cool comfort in the closing pages. With imperturbable control and impeccable insight, Chauhan delivered everything this extraordinary movement has to offer, with the BBCSO with him all the way.

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