BBCSO at the Cheltenham Festival

Fanfare for the Common Man
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
The Unanswered Question
Petrushka [1947 version]

Melvyn Tan (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 July, 2002
Venue: Town Hall, Cheltenham

The percussive onslaught of Copland filled the warm acoustic of Cheltenham Town Hall, although bass drum and timpani were not always in step and the brass lacked poise and dynamic variety. The ethereal contrast afforded by Ives, emerging from applause and thoughtfully performed, was wasted on an audience determined to drop things; such intrusion was compounded by the clearing away of utensils from the interval reception!

Mobile phones sounded twice during the Schumann, which seemed not to matter too much – a reflection of a rather uninvolving account of this evergreen concerto, a work that Alfred Brendel admits continues to elude him and one not in Emanuel Ax’s repertoire given he does not believe he can do it justice (although in his concerto, Seeing, Christopher Rouse quotes from the Schumann to at least ensure that Ax plays a few bars!). His fortepiano-playing days behind him, Melvyn Tan gave a reading that rarely seemed inside the music; choppy phrasing, unconvincing rubato and rhythmic lurches unsettled the music for being applied rather than intrinsic. The orchestra was rarely hushed enough if supportive and only the unhurried ’Finale’ really convinced – a symbiosis of Classical measure and Romantic expressiveness that brought forth some unusual articulations. Radu Lupu’s poetic and impromptu London performance from last year casts a long shadow.

Petrushka re-dressed the balance – a terrific rendition that lifted off the page, passing infelicities of little consequence, and if some corners could have been more articulately turned, Leonard Slatkin made the leaner scoring of 1947 just as theatrical, and as Russian, as the original version of 1911. He found the score’s ebullience, vividness and sinister undercurrent, and revealed Stravinsky’s kinship with Tchaikovsky. An alertness to textural mosaic and brilliant sonorities paid dividends.

The thrills and spills of this invigorating and compelling performance, recreated with orchestral commitment and individual expertise, poses the Ivesian question as to just why Slatkin is already parting company with the BBCSO (after the 2004 Proms). It does seem a shame.

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