BBCSO/Honeck Nelson Freire

Scorribanda sinfonica [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Nelson Freire (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck

Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 8 December, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The music of Hans Werner Henze is always challenging. It was wonderful to hear the UK premiere of Scorribanda sinfonica of 2000-01 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Of all the UK orchestras, this is the one most suited to the task of decoding Henze’s horrendously complex score.

Scorribanda sinfonica is a reworking of a dance drama of 1958 called Maratona di Danza (the full title is actually Scorribanda sinfonica sopra la tomba di una Maratona). In the original, various styles of pop music collided head-on with more ‘classical’ styles. In the case of the present work, Henze sets up a secure and eminently detectable rhythmic impulse (with the brass acting as a sort of ‘anchor’ to the strings’ scurrying) against which proto-cantabile lines seek expression without actually achieving any real blossoming.

Add shards of pop and dance music into the already heady mix and the effect is oddly macabre, and certainly unsettling. Inevitably perhaps, the music eventually collapses in on itself before the percussion revivifies it – at this point Henze introduces distinctly darker writing. Scored for huge orchestra (including a mind-boggling selection of different-sized gongs), Henze’s 15-minute ‘etude for orchestra’ made a huge impression. And so nice to hear music that actually stretches one the listener!

The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire was the soloist in the Beethoven. This was my first experience of him live and although familiar with some of his recordings, I was not prepared for his excellence. Eminently musical throughout and possessed of a welcoming and naturally warm tone, his playing exhibits a fluency that enables the music to flow effortlessly and, above all, naturally from his fingers. His body hardly moves; instead his whole concentration is spent on achieving the sound and phrasing he requires. Evidently a fine chamber musician, his interactions with the (slightly rough of ensemble) orchestra were fine indeed. Intriguingly, he played Busoni’s versions of Beethoven’s cadenzas, adding a new slant to the expected without completely displacing it.

It was a pity that the Barbican acoustic worked against the strings in the slow movement, but all was forgotten in the finale, which seemed to be exactly Freire’s kind of music. His true finger-strength made it all sound so easy. If this was not the largest conception of Beethoven No.4, it was certainly one of the most finely chiselled.

In comparison with its fellow London orchestras, the BBCSO does not traverse the standard repertoire with regularity. It was this, surely, that gave this Tchaikovsky Fifth its freshness and vitality. Honeck shaped the music expressively but without indulgence, while the various soloists had a ball (fine contributions from Damaris Wollen on clarinet and Richard Bissill on horn). The dark hues of the lower strings at the outset found an answer in the more buoyant rhythms of the Allegro con anima. Biting brass gave the whole conception an edge (Honeck is clearly unafraid of raw climaxes). If only the violins had not sounded so shrill. Honeck is a fine conductor, and the BBCSO recognises this. Each movement of the Tchaikovsky was finely sculpted; even the final coda was well-paced to avoid the feel of a desperate sprint.

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