BBCSO Barrett Premiere

NO (resistance & vision, Part 1) [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.3 in C, Op.26
Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 February, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Not surprising, perhaps, that Richard Barrett – Welsh-born and now domiciled in Holland – has received little exposure in the UK in recent years. Not only does his music follow uncompromisingly the lineage of what might be termed the ‘hard-line’ avant-garde, but his conviction as to music’s role in questioning the very foundations of its wider culture has disappeared from the UK scene in recent years. Yet, as Vanity (itself a BBC commission and recorded on NMC D041S) demonstrated some years ago, such questioning is not irrelevant to today’s musical concerns when the composer meets the challenge of writing for such an ostensible institution as the orchestra with the flair and resource that Barrett possesses. So too NO: his new work intended as the first part of a multi-media cycle which aims to explore possibilities of ‘resistance and vision’ as a means for change in music as in society at large.

How to characterise music which questions so completely the existing fundamentals of syntax and expression? Barrett’s conception of the orchestra – divided into seven groups ranging from four to 25 instruments – is as diverse as it is intricate, the relation of each part to the whole underpinned by a sense of how individual contributions influence the collective statement. Perhaps for this reason, the six continuous ‘scenes’ proceed less as a cumulatively intensifying sequence than as a process of greater or lesser order emerging from, only to fall back into, relative chaos. Whether this might be interpreted as a rethinking of the ‘thesis/antithesis’ dialectic, or rather as a symbolic frustration of the desire towards ‘progress’, is something that subsequent pieces in the cycle will presumably expound upon.

This performance seemed expert in its unfolding of incident in the pursuit of a formal logic, albeit provisional; with the orchestral sound, though not devoid of more rebarbative moments, of a sophistication making it possible to approach the work as a study in musical tension and release which engages as surely as it provokes. In all events, this was 23 minutes constructively spent.

The remainder of the programme comprised Russian works written a quarter-century apart. After the unfortunate mauling it received recently at the hands of James Tocco, it was good to hear Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto played with the impetus that makes it so exhilarating a mainstay of the repertoire. Simon Trpčeski has been making his name as a virtuoso to reckon with, and brought the requisite élan to the rapid-fire passagework in which this work abounds – without neglecting the dreamy introspection of the first movement’s central interlude or the more inward variations of its successor. Nor was the ‘big tune’ in the finale denied its rightful eloquence, with the brilliance of the outer sections delivered in scintillating fashion. Otaka kept a tight rein on the orchestral contribution – which, though it can be rendered more subtly, was finely gauged to the pianist’s conception. As an encore, Trpčeski offered Glicik’s Prelude and Pajdushka – a dance fantasy that wears its folk-isms with aplomb, and allowed a glimpse of Macedonian culture for so long unfamiliar to outside audiences.

Two London performances of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony in little over a month was hardly to be expected, and Otaka’s expertise in this composer’s music – appreciably different from that of Tamas Vasary (his recent uninhibited performance with the London Schools Symphony) was evident throughout. This account had previously been advertised (not on the night itself) as the ‘original version’: the music was in all essentials that which has been heard since its rehabilitation over a half-century ago, with textural differences centering on percussion additions in the first two movements – themselves a matter of variance during the work’s performance history. Otaka was not likely to direct a performance in the ‘Russian tradition’: his precise though never clinical or uninvolving approach was best demonstrated in the scherzo-cum-intermezzo, its thoughtfulness and formal ingenuity belie the symphony’s reputation as an over-ambitious student’s date with destiny. So too the Larghetto, its fragile lyricism and passing unease was handled with rare poise and fervour.

The outer movements were more problematic in that while Otaka had the measure of their aggression and soul-searching, he failed to integrate thematic contrasts with quite the conviction needed. Thus the opening movement was never more than the sum of its undeniably impressive parts – and, after a suitably vigorous opening, the finale lacked the cohesion without which the recollections of earlier material risked seeming contrived – despite the BBC Symphony’s rising to the challenge of its more overt excesses. Even so, the status of the work as being the crucial link between Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich was satisfyingly conveyed: little wonder that Glazunov, having conducted his own Sixth Symphony before the interval, carried out his ‘demolition job’ at the premiere so successfully.

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