BBCSO/Spano Jonathan Biss

…quasi una fantasia…
Piano Concerto No.9 in E flat, K271
Mátrai Pictures
The Miraculous Mandarin

Jonathan Biss (piano)

BBC Singers
James Weeks [Kodály]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano

Reviewed by: Alex Verney-Elliott

Reviewed: 11 December, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert under Robert Spano was a wonderful example of perfectly balanced and imaginatively inventive programming.

György Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia… complimented well the Mozart piano concerto, both works being examples of flawless economy. Kurtág’s piece has an opaque opulence and eerie elegance producing sounds both intimate and alien, members of the orchestra spread around the hall producing the sensation of different time-zone: an extraordinary experience.

Jonathan Biss makes each work he plays sound new-minted, bringing intricacy and delicacy perfectly pitched with the other instrumentalist as if in intimate conversation. Mozart’s E flat Piano Concerto was given a spirited account by Biss, making Mozart’s music sound strikingly modern through revealing dark and dissonant elements whilst being true to the composer’s ornate and flamboyant style. Although Spano gave sensitive support the BBCSO lacked a sense of style and was rather bland.

Kodály’s “Mátrai Pictures” – based on folk songs from Mátrai – was characteristically rendered by the BBC Singers who produced a wide range of moods and colours for each of the songs and were conducted by James Weeks with enthusiastic flair and rhythmic incisiveness.

Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin was far too civilised and well-mannered with lacklustre strings and toned-down percussion contrasting with appropriately pointed and gruffly played clarinet cadenzas and raucous trombone glissandos. The conducting was too analytically measured and laid-back lacking a forward thrusting drive, adrenaline, and visceral attack so essential to this raw and rugged score. The word-less chorus lacked mystery being too forward and in your face.

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