London Philharmonic/Alsop Nicolas Hodges – The Unanswered Question … The Age of Anxiety … Shostakovich 5

Two Contemplations – No.1: The Unanswered Question
Symphony No.2 (The Age of Anxiety)
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Nicolas Hodges (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 21 April, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Marin Alsop. ©Grant LeightonThis concert was part of The Bernstein Project, of which Marin Alsop is Artistic Director, and featured two works which Bernstein championed (indeed, I was fortunate enough to have witnessed him conduct the Shostakovich in this very hall in, I think, 1977) alongside one of Bernstein’s own major orchestral works.

Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question was presented in a way the composer would have approved of, with the strings invisible, the trumpet at the back of the hall and only the flutes on the platform with the conductor. The strings certainly conveyed Ives’s idea of the ‘Silences of the Druids’ but one wondered whether they were, in fact, just a shade too remote. Conversely, the trumpet’s question was rather too loud. The flutes’ chattering replies were pointed, though there were moments of insecure delivery of their admittedly fiendish-to-play phrases.

Alsop gave a talk – illustrated by live musical examples – to introduce Leonard Bernstein’s Second Symphony. Whether one found her manner condescending or illuminating is a matter of opinion – possibly the latter for those unfamiliar with the work.

Having been aware of Nicolas Hodges only for his admirable advocacy of some fearsome contemporary music, I was surprised to find him so adept in the solo role Bernstein allots the piano in this symphony written after W. H. Auden’s ‘Baroque Eclogue’. He encompassed its challenges admirably, from neo-romantic to expressionist paragraphs via the “fantastic piano-jazz” (the composer’s description) of ‘The Masque’ in which, it has to be reported, some of the percussion writing was not delivered immaculately. Hodges was an impressive protagonist throughout, with barely a slip.

In a work that can hardly been familiar to it, the London Philharmonic was diligent, surely guided by Alsop’s judicious choice of tempos. The performance became more assured as it progressed and one noted a welcome sense of symphonic cohesion in a score which can too often sound episodic.The Age of Anxiety is hardly a repertory piece and this performance made one regret that it is not heard more often.

A symphony that most definitely is heard quite regularly is Shostakovich 5 and one wonders, therefore, whether a less familiar piece might have found its way into the series of concerts The Bernstein Project is encompassing.

Alsop and the LPO gave a good account. Rather fleeter-footed in the first and third movements than is sometimes the case, though Alsop was pretty faithful to the given metronome markings. If these movements lacked the searing intensity of some readings, then the second movement was exemplary, the Mahlerian irony played up for all it is worth, and most effectively too. A few slip-ups did detract, but as the powerful finale reached a shattering conclusion, one couldn’t help but reflect that, familiar though it may be, this symphony remains a deeply troubled – and troubling – work.

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