LSO Previn Tansy Davies Premiere

Tilting [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491
Symphony No.10 in E minor, Op.93

London Symphony Orchestra
Christophe Mangou
André Previn (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 June, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

When this concert was first announced the Mozart concerto was to be the G major (K453) with Dutilleux’s Métaboles as the opening item. As I understand it, for I have no recollection of the LSO’s subsequent communiqué, the Dutilleux was dropped on the basis it would make the concert too long. Métaboles (written for Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra) lasts just over 15 minutes. Anyway, time moves on, albeit some recent publicity material confusingly retained the original programme, and in comes the first instalment of the LSO/UBS initiative “Sound Adventures” – a splendid idea that will commission eighteen UK-based composers over the next three years. The idea is that the LSO is keeping the premieres a secret; in theory audiences won’t know about the ‘something new’ until they are at the concert.

It will be difficult, though, to beat Claudio Abbado including a substantial piece by Brian Ferneyhough in his first, Royal Festival Hall concert as Principal Conductor (1979), which was a last-minute if well-planned addition to a sold-out evening of Brahms and Tchaikovsky! Good for him – both for the choice of composer and the subterfuge; but hopefully the LSO will not be so secretive as to deny people, who might choose against a particular programme, missing something they would actually like to hear simply because they weren’t there on the night. But, then, is the LSO underestimating music-lovers’ aversion to ‘contemporary music’ – whatever that is, except for being written now, of course?

With an introductory ‘for the 21st-century’ speech from David Alberman (leader of the LSO’s second violins) and Tansy Davies’s spoken introduction including examples of her new piece – which, together, and ironically, made the concert longer than if Métaboles had been played – there was something almost apologetic about the presentation. This, for a moment, felt like a concert for schoolchildren. Having a few words from the composer is fair enough (there was no programme note save a separate Davies-related page left on the seats), and she did this spontaneously and engagingly. Better, surely, to just play the piece, a mere seven minutes in this case, and let us get on with it.

Tilting is a straightforward work, written with the audience in mind, which is confidently written but rather too derivative. Its use of ‘industrial’ percussion and ‘street’ gestures isn’t novel, and there are echoes of Messiaen, Birtwistle, Louis Andriessen and, further back in time, Varèse. However, the strongest influence seems to be Turnage, and his style is very much his own. If Tansy Davies’s material itself is not especially individual, what impresses more is her organisation and lucid scoring. One acid test is wanting or not to hear any piece of music again. In this case, yes. And, why not have each of these “Sound Adventures” commissions recorded for CD, one issue a year, say? That really would share these pieces around. Christophe Mangou presided over a very confident first performance.

Enter André Previn. What a lovely pianist he is. This was a gem of a performance, played from memory, with the reduced strings of the LSO, I made it 27 players, in equality of balance with the woodwinds and horns, and the trumpets and timpani quite vivid. This was chamber music; the LSO musicians’ input was palpable, Previn giving the merest of gestures or glances. Stylish, sensitive and intimate, Previn’s innate pianism got to the heart of the matter: a gentle touch, a slightly jazzy left-hand, unimpeachable phrasing and sense of line, and with an understatement that also carried great expression. The slow movement purred along, unusually swiftly, but so beautifully phrased as to be wholly convincing. Presumably the cadenzas were Previn’s own? The one for the first movement was quite extravagant, with a hint of Liszt, and had one remembering that Saint-Saëns also wrote a cadenza for K491 (which Solomon played). Throughout, the LSO contributed much, not least unanimous, articulate trills from the strings and consistently meaningful woodwind contributions. This is a dark, tragic work, which although never underlined, was here made absolutely compelling.

The Shostakovich was less convincing, at its best in the outer movements. Of the middle two, the scherzo, a maybe-caricature of Stalin, was under-tempo, not trenchant or vicious enough, and the too-loud percussion was gratuitous. The third movement lacked atmosphere and purpose. However, the first movement’s Moderato marking was taken at face-value and was spot-on; all over in 20 minutes (the average is several minutes more), Previn’s musicianship took in the three-part exposition, transitions and searing climax in one breath. Similarly the finale had a real feeling of direction; if only Previn could have injected a bit more adrenaline into the final bars; the rhythmic kick was spot-on, though. How imposing the finale’s lugubrious opening had been, subtle dynamic changes speaking volumes and Roy Carter’s intense, snaking oboe solo cutting into the air.

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