Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/James Gaffigan at The Anvil – Sibelius & Tchaikovsky – Benjamin Grosvenor plays Grieg

Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16
Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, Op.32

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
James Gaffigan

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 22 November, 2012
Venue: The Anvil, Basingstoke, Hampshire, England

James Gaffigan. Photograph: Margaretta K. MitchellHaving manifested his friend Busoni’s thoughts on a new direction in music, heralded as “Young Classicism”, in his Third Symphony, Sibelius then embarked on serious discussions with Busoni on the merits of Schoenberg’s forging of a new musical syntax. From this period, 1910, Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony emerged, gaunt, austere and seemingly without hope. In musical terms the methods used by Sibelius were close to the integration and concision of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony.

What distinguishes Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony from almost any other work of this era is the overlay of his personal drama, Sibelius fearful of a recurrence of an earlier cancer scare and under strict medical instructions to abjure from his favourite cigars and alcohol. Sibelius took refuge in music. Perhaps the Fourth Symphony is the greatest expression of ‘cold turkey’ in Western art.

Through the use of the tritone, Sibelius constantly subverts any semblance of stability, hence the work’s restlessness and constant changes of mood. There is some hope also. From the darkest reaches at the beginning, the music rises as if to seek a new dawn, only to be rebuffed. Combining feelings of anxiety and optimism, the work concedes to utter consternation near the end, where the music seems to fight a great battle it knows it cannot win. The coda is dull and morose.

James Gaffigan took the bull by the horns. In earlier times this work was hissed, described as “dismal and doleful” and generally disparaged, when it was heard at all. Gaffigan announced his intention to use the parts from a performance in Bournemouth in 1913, barely a year following the UK premiere under Sibelius himself in Birmingham. He warned us to expect a general darkness in the Symphony but described it as being of equal significance in the development of 20th-century music as Stravinsky’s contemporaneous The Rite of Spring.

Gaffigan proceeded to illuminate this music in an extraordinary fashion; and with alertness, precision and well-judged tempos, conjured an opening movement full of great power and menace, the succeeding scherzo developing into outright hostility, the beautiful slow movement given space and solace to enshrine its imaginary route towards building the most potent and powerful theme in the whole work. The finale began in lighter mood before dissolving into conflict and despair. Gaffigan drew playing of wonderful refinement.

Benjamin Grosvenor. ©Benjamin GrosvenorAfter the interval, Grieg’s Piano Concerto was played by Benjamin Grosvenor, who has plenty of ideas for turning something familiar into an interesting musical experience. His fingers flashed across the keyboard like shafts of light, darting into areas of warmth and comfort. Everything was in good taste as part of a fresh reading. His encore was unknown to this reviewer but it needed sensational technique, duly delivered. (The encore was Liszt’s Gnomenreigen – Ed.)

The taciturn severity heard in Sibelius’s Symphony was counterbalanced by Tchaikovsky’s inspiration on the subject of Dante’s Francesco da Rimini. Although it is not top-notch Tchaikovsky it still packs a formidable punch, not least the very end where the final crisis of entering into the fires of Hell needs playing of the utmost ferocity, conductor and orchestra rising to the occasion with virtuosity and panache. This was a believable Hell, not a Hollywood one, Gaffigan impressing (as throughout) with his overall musicality and flair for balance, colour and tone, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra dedicated and imposing.

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