BBCSO/Andrew Davis – Qibti

Qibti [BBC commission: world premiere]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43
Cinderella (selections)

Simon Trpceski (piano)

Deborah Bull (narrator)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 December, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was a curiosity constituted programme, with the first performance of a brand-new work from an English composer set alongside two Russian ’classics’ – for want of a better word. Before the concert, in another part of the Barbican, the British Composer Awards were presented for the first time, which meant we missed Vic Hoyland’s concurrent talk (in yet another part of the Barbican) introducing Qibti. Some consideration regarding co-ordination would not have gone amiss.

Qibti, the second part of a projected trilogy of orchestral pieces, is inspired, or triggered, by reflections on Egyptian culture. The composer’s programme note did not give much away – even the title itself remains something of an enigma. It is, therefore, rather difficult to tell what the piece is ’about’. Given the Egyptian background, one must assume that Hoyland had some programmatic idea in mind, but whatever the specifics, what he has produced is an impressive orchestral movement of some 25 minutes duration.

It is a piece full of interest, which gripped the attention. There are some arresting moments such as monolithic passages for the brass, along with material in the woodwinds – heard over dense, sustained string chords – which from time to time suggested anguished bird-cries from Messiaen’s aviary. Indeed, Hoyland refers to a bird escaping from the tomb in his brief written note. At other times, the craggy edifices of Birtwistle’s uncompromising language were hinted at, as well as the occasional sonority of Berio’s Sinfonia. Hoyland was working on Qibti when he learned of Berio’s death.

But far from being derivative, Hoyland has evoked a singularly individual soundworld, which was not devoid of a sense of unease, even danger. A large orchestra is deployed, with eight percussionists (though no timpani) being especially active. The tuned percussion is supplemented by the use of a Panasonic Digital Piano, which is skilfully integrated into the whole, rather than drawing attention to itself.

Passages of almost motoric rhythm are starkly contrasted with more delicate textures, and the fading away towards Qibti’s conclusion is decidedly striking and memorable. This is a work that most definitely did not reveal its secrets on a first hearing. The fact that one would like to hear it again is a tribute to the music’s power and the confident performance it received under Sir Andrew Davis.

On more familiar – and perhaps more comfortable – territory, Simon Trpceski was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s ubiquitous Paganini Rhapsody. This is by no means an easy work to bring off convincingly. The danger is making the piece more ’sectional’ than it is by treating individual – or groups of – variations separately rather than making them part of the whole. It was not a danger avoided on this occasion. Simon Trpceski is without question an uncommonly fine technician. The notes were brilliantly and flawlessly played. But there was little, if any, sense of the music’s spirit conveyed, and Davis and the BBCSO appeared content to merely dance along in attendance. One or two details of instrumental colouring from the winds (the clarinets in particular) were effective, but there were a surprising number of fluffs from the brass. However gratefully everyone soared into the ’big tune’ of the 18th variation, there is more to this music than this one opulent moment.

Trpceski returned for an encore – Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. Again, immaculately managed, it would have been gratifying to have sensed some joie de vivre in the pianist’s playing and demeanour.

Andrew Davis made his own selection of numbers from Prokofiev’s wartime ballet, which were linked by a narration penned by Andrew Morton (not of Diana connection, it seems), and spoken with girlish glee by dancer Deborah Bull.

I did not find this especially convincing, with the tone of the (rhymed) words being – hopefully unintentionally – condescending. If the thinking behind the idea was to attract children to the concert, then this did not succeed.

The excerpts were, in general, played dutifully enough, but one problem with this type of dissection is the big melodic moments come too quickly after one another, and the angular, high-lying string writing (not always unanimously played here) of Prokofiev’s orchestration began to pall. Davis did not seem particularly comfortable with the music’s idiom, with some of the waltz rhythms being lumpy, if not aggressively delivered.

All in all, this was a strange context for Vic Hoyland’s new work, which perhaps will find its true place only when Phoenix completes his orchestral triptych.

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