Philharmonia/Dohnányi Stephen Hough & Music of Today

Rihm
Kalt [UK premiere]
Chiffre 1
In Frage [UK premiere]

Sarah Nicolls (piano)
Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
André de Ridder

Weber
Euryanthe – Overture
Mozart
Piano Concerto No.21 in C, K467
Beethoven
Symphony No.7 in A, Op.92

Stephen Hough (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

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Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 5 October, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The almost an hour-long “Music of Today” concert of Wolfgang Rihm’s music began most engagingly with Julian Anderson (MOT’s Artistic Director) pointing out that many concert-goers regard ‘modern’ music as inaccessible, consequently staying away from concerts that offered these formidable ‘modern’ works. Composers had noticed this, he added – and, in recent years, had written music aiming to be more accessible. Look then, he added, at the considerable difficulty of Rihm’s music – and the swelling attendance at concerts where it is played.

Anderson turned to André de Ridder asking for his own experience in coming to terms with Rihm, especially since this young conductor has become a renowned advocate of ‘difficult’ composers, and he spoke of an experience as a teenager in Berlin. The piece depicted Oedipus – and de Ridder remembers hating the shrill, grating sounds when Oedipus’s eyes are put out. Second thoughts suggested that the music was entirely appropriate to the scene – and composers of non-ingratiating music such as this might have honourable intent. Listen again … and again, he advised.

Sarah Nicolls spoke admiringly of Rihm’s probing quest to test musical instruments to the extreme of their capability (as did Berio). She conjured up this picture of a large man with long, powerful arms, able comfortably to pound the highest and the lowest notes on the keyboard at the same time. His daring use of silence was commented on – silences longer than one’s body expected (like the length of some stops on the London Underground).

Keep an open ear. Above all, open yourself to being continually surprised, they concluded.

Each of Rihm’s three pieces played here differed somewhat in character. Kalt had no piano part; Chiffre 1 treats the piano as a persistent interloper, oblivious to the concerns of the other instruments; and, conversely, for In Frage, the piano initiates what comes next, often darkly and harshly, but also fundamentally.

On the whole, Rihm’s sounds are dislocated, deliberately – with two hints only that music might be capable of melody (particularly, the tentative viola solo at the end of In Frage). My overall impression was that I was being presented – challengingly, good-humouredly and wryly – with the raw materials of sound, itself. Rihm had no intention of connecting these disparate sounds. There was juxtaposition, but not continuity; and although I am favourably-disposed towards this music. I must say that three pieces on the trot was somewhat tiring.

Later in the evening the overture to “Euryanthe” was vigorous and admirably played under the Philharmonia’s Principal Conductor Christoph von Dohnányi. But it sounded rather piecemeal. This is primarily the responsibility of Weber himself, writing a potpourri of highlights from his opera. The music may be in sonata form and harmonically adventurous – and thus of some technical interest – but the overall effect is curious sectional.

The strings set the tone at the opening of the Mozart concerto – very engagingly – quiet, forward-moving, anticipatory. The arrival of the brass changed the balance and the emphasis: the orchestra sounded heavier, as if pounding away from an earlier tradition. The opening refinement and delicacy was not truly recaptured until the ‘Elvira Madigan’ slow movement. This revealed elegant restraint – on the part of both pianist and orchestra. Stephen Hough played the famous melody with a disarming and assured limpidity, and poised phrasing. The performance was composed, distinctive and high-quality. The finale scampered away, heady and joyous. Hough was nimble and adroit, but I did not hear always hear exuberance coming through his fingers.

The Beethoven symphony was the high spot of the evening. There was a sense of occasion, the Philharmonia’s showpiece. Solo moments for individual instruments glowed and shone as if they were part of a concerto for orchestra, temporarily giving the particular musician the limelight to revel in the resonance and beauty of the sounds that he or she was capable of making. The strings surged supremely. The climaxes soared. By the time of the finale, the Queen Elizabeth Hall was in danger of bursting. The sound was stupendous – as was the joy and vitality being expressed.

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