BBCSO/Porcelijn – An Anniversary & Two Birthdays (24 October)

Phalaphala – Dance Concerto
Piano Concerto [BBC commission: world premiere]
David Matthews
Symphony No.2

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Porcelijn

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 October, 2003
Venue: BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London

Priaulx Rainier’s centenary was marked with her Stravinsky-indebted Phalaphala, which was completed in 1961 for Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic. Lasting here 17 minutes, Phalaphala is an inventive piece of mechanical and dancing figures, Stravinsky’s Quatre Études and the ceremony of his Agon recalled in formalisations recognisable as being from the ’50s. Yet Rainier, in a belated first work for orchestra and with dance rhythms from Africa (she was born in Natal), avoids compositional didacticism through continual modification of rhythm and scoring, the reduced string section in ’percussive’ equality with the rest of the orchestra.

Justin Connolly turned 70 in August. The piano concerto was written for and inspired by Nicolas Hodges. He played with impeccable nonchalance, yet the solo part seems devoid of personality; and, after the coursing vitality of the opening variations, one felt that the piece was in maze-like difficulties, not the composer’s intention despite the concerto being based on “the ancient idea of the labyrinth”. Leaning to Schoenberg for organisation, Connolly’s “14 processes”, while lucid, seem self-defeating over the half-hour duration. Stylistically, the work seems to centrifuge back thirty or more years, a nod to Elliott Carter (and not just because Connolly, like Carter in his own piano concerto, uses orchestral instruments as ’characters’), a reminder of Humphrey Searle (who studied with Webern) and, ultimately, an unfavourable comparison with Connolly’s near-contemporary, the like-minded Hugh Wood.

Connolly splits the brass and percussion into two groups, difficult to hear why on a first acquaintance. Such arrangement is explained by the work’s construction, “the commonly-found labyrinthine structure of seven concentric tracks, each traversed twice”, which explains the “14” aspect of the concerto’s development and, presumably, also the “twice”. The positioned-forward first horn (with its imitation sitting opposite and further back) is cast as the pianist’s mentor. The violins are antiphonal, the composer silent on why in his note and in conversation with Anthony Burton pre-performance; so, presumably, more to do with going round the track twice than Connolly specifically opening-up the sound-picture in the way that Boult, Connolly’s conducting teacher, would have appreciated such usage. The disappointing thing about Connolly’s concerto is that its early questing, engaging and absorbing, suggested far more than it finally delivered.

David Matthews’s Symphony No.2 (premiered in 1982 by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Simon Rattle) is also a striving work – in velocity and ascent. Whether the final gesture, a long-held gong-stroke, offers true summation, certainly after the preceding tumult, is debatable; similarly the overall trajectory of the work isn’t as clear-cut as it might be.

As Matthews, 60 last March, said come his turn to speak, the symphony’s material is laid out in the opening pages, an eloquent bassoon solo leads off (beautifully played here) and the close is described as an ’epilogue’. Hmmm, a bassoon solo, an epilogue, all the material stated early on … one thinks of Bax, his Third Symphony to be precise … Bax has a round-number anniversary this year (he died in 1953) … he and Matthews have a kinship with Sibelius.

Yet, while Bax can now be heard as more cosmopolitan than might be thought, there is a discernible Englishness in Matthews’s language, of which this is no criticism. There’s a clear line to Tippett in rich, complex polyphony, and to Britten in the precisely realised carillon of the epilogue. And much impressive material, the darkly beautiful string music, and the scherzo’s power, sonority and virtuosity, for example.

Yet for all the vibrancy of the percussion ’gamelan’ (the fifth of the seven sections), this felt more an interlude than an organic part, and some episodes felt not developed enough (a measure of how inventive Matthews’s material actually is), leaving the feeling, that however communicative and vivid the music is, that the symphony’s ’traditional’ parts have yet more potential and that progress is less than seamless. That said, this is music for both the senses and the intellect, and the 36 minutes of this performance passed by very quickly.

Once again, BBC Studio One proved a haven for anyone musically curious. David Porcelijn was an expert guide. These studio concerts allow for re-takes for future-broadcast purposes; none were taken on this occasion, although some trumpet passages in the Rainier and Matthews would have benefited from a second go. ’Real’ performances, then, to be heard on 5 November, a concert that suggested the most satisfying piece is Phalaphala and David Matthews’s symphony as a near-masterpiece.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 5 November at 7.30
  • If you would like to attend BBCSO concerts at Maida Vale then call BBC Audience Services on 020 8576 1227 or visit BBC Tickets
  • The next Maida Vale concert is on 20 November and features New Generation Artists in concertos by Bernstein, Nielsen and Prokofiev

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