Beyond a Fallen Tree [USB commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 23 May, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Like a Mozart sandwich, Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s nimble-fingered and rather cheeky performance of Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto (that, interestingly, after nearly half-a-century has seemingly lost its Swedish-film nickname ‘Elvira Madigan’), was flanked by two large-orchestra scores. Although uneven in their lengths, Charlotte Bray’s Beyond a Fallen Tree and Suk’s Asrael Symphony inhabited not too-far-distant soundworlds, as Bray’s Neruda-inspired opener sounded as if it could have come from the decade after Suk’s work, with a Second Viennese School harmony and brevity.
While the programme note was largely unhelpful in providing a context for Bray’s music, thankfully – at the end of the Suk note and opposite the orchestra list (that is, at the furthest remove from the work’s place at the start of the concert) – there was a brief interview with Bray, which made much more sense. The multi-sectional aspect of her short orchestral poem is based on Neruda’s line from his “The Dawn’s Debility”, which runs “a shipwreck in a void, surrounded by tears.”
In essence rather like the five movements of Suk’s Asrael or Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, this traced a musical arc, two types of music surrounding the central depiction of the shipwreck. Immediately adjacent on both sides was Bray’s music for the void – a single held pitch – and both to begin and end the music of tears; the score at its most Bergian. The creaking and cracking of the shipwreck enlivened the faster central section. Bray counts Turnage, Knussen and Colin Matthews as mentors. While on first hearing her music may not yet have their authentic individuality, there was certainly enough to look forward to another hearing.
The platform shed half its players, the stage reset for Aimard’s Mozart. It seems that the London Symphony Orchestra holds a monopoly on Mozart piano concertos currently – after Uchida’s recent collaboration with Sir Colin Davis. Although Daniel Harding has not the easy grace with this music that Sir Colin has, he fashioned a lithe K467 for Aimard to trace his solo line, at once more brittle and combative than Uchida might be.
Of course, it’s a genial work with a delicate sublime slow movement (used in that Swedish film), and perhaps Harding tried too hard in managing the instrumental interplay. But soloist and conductor did seem to be at-one, and Aimard was in sparkling form, particularly in the quirky finale cadenza which I assume was of Aimard’s own making.
After the interval Daniel Harding conducted almost as large forces as the Bray (no piano and tuned percussion, but increasing double basses by two up to eight – on Harding’s left for the whole programme, by the way), for Suk’s Asrael Symphony, indelibly affected by two deaths; that of Dvořák in 1904 and of Dvořák’s daughter Otile barely a year later – respectively Suk’s father-in-law and wife. The oft-recurring theme, first powerfully intoned by massed strings and then re-introduced in various guises, written in the wake of Dvořák’s death, is easily regarded as the Islamic angel of death Asrael, and Harding had a commanding sweep of Suk’s architecture, with an ear for detail, especially for the haunting pizzicatos that seems to pervade the score.
We have been lucky with performances of Asrael in recent seasons. Bělohlávek conducted it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (21 May 2008), while Jurowski conducted it on 20 February this year with the London Philharmonic. It’s good to have had both Jurowski’s and Harding’s view of the work to join past-master Bělohlávek.
Harding was perhaps more ‘Hollywood’ heart-on-sleeve with the more propulsive sections of the score and less individual in the treatment of the wind solos, but this was a very satisfying account. I would urge Harding to look at Hans Rott’s Symphony in E. The London Symphony Orchestra responded well to Harding’s generous and affable conducting, recovering its collective equilibrium after the less-than-happy experience of Gergiev’s Messiaen just four days earlier.