Robin Holloway 60th-birthday Concert – BBC Philharmonic at RNCM (17 October)

Scenes from Schumann
Violin Concerto
Concerto for Orchestra No.2 *

Ernst Kovacic (violin)

BBC Philharmonic
Martyn Brabbins (* assisted by Jason Lai)

Reviewed by: Dominic Nudd

Reviewed: 17 October, 2003
Venue: Brown Shipley Hall, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester

Robin Holloway is one of our most prolific and least classifiable composers. His 60th-birthday has been celebrated, in somewhat desultory fashion, in London with concerts in the Wigmore Hall and in the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series, both of which have been reviewed on this site. In Manchester he was given a three-day festival as part of the Royal Northern College of Music’s “Resonances” series, of which the highlight was this concert by the BBC Philharmonic under the ubiquitous Martyn Brabbins.

Holloway has explained how in the late 1960s he felt himself faced with a crisis, having been taught as a severe modernist with Alexander Goehr and finding that he could go no further in that direction. Holloway’s response was to turn to the aesthetic of the Romantics and in particular to Schumann. His Scenes from Schumann are orchestral paraphrases of seven of Schumann’s songs, the composer playing affectionately with the originals. The work has had a number of performances over the years, including some on the continent, and this fine one was full of enthusiasm and spirit, the strings in particular responding stylishly to Holloway’s demanding writing. Although Holloway claims Schumann exclusively as his source, a couple of horn calls sound remarkably like Siegfried’s from his Rhine Journey. Much of the orchestral writing is very high lying, there is almost nothing for double basses or other low instruments, which gives the music a fantastical quality, a world sometimes difficult to enter.

Holloway’s Violin Concerto was a commission from the BBC Philharmonic in 1990, first performed by Ernst Kovacic and recorded by him for Collins Classics, now reissued on NMC. When I heard the first broadcast and the recording I was bowled over. The concerto is one of the most mysteriously beautiful works I know; it is utterly damning that this is the first performance I know of since the recording (though I hope someone can prove me wrong). On record it comes over as haunted and mysterious, while in the confined space of the Brown Shipley Hall it emerged with more swagger and punch. Even though Ernst Kovacic has apparently not played the work since that recording, and he was playing from the part, he seemed as thoroughly inside the music as previously, with a rich variety of tone and phrasing.

The concerto is in either three or five movements (alternating fast and slow) interspersed with nine Windows which open and shed new light onto the concerto’s material from different angles, the whole playing continuously following, but not setting, the poetry of Rilke, and at its heart is a paraphrase of a Fauré song. Holloway’s sense of fantasy is wonderfully alive here, the gloriously faceted orchestral texture flickers and dazzles, and through it the soloist weaves a fluid line. The final reprise of the Fauré paraphrase in the central slow section is urgent and impassioned and the following second scherzo is a dramatic contrast to the revealing inwardness. I couldn’t fault the performance, the orchestra were clearly astonished and hooked by Kovacic’s ability and played superbly for Brabbins.

The Second Concerto for Orchestra I have heard before live – in London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1990 when a grand total of 220 people (I counted them) heard Oliver Knussen direct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in it (plus the first and last orchestral works of Copland). I’d have been delighted if this Manchester performance had managed to beat that, but even the small Brown Shipley Hall was barely full.

The inspiration for the concerto took hold on a visit to North Africa. Holloway has translated the heady exuberance and rich contrasts of his experience into a brazen work, one ear-splitting at times. The concerto needs a huge orchestra, including a job-creation-scheme percussion section. The polyrhythmic complexities are so great that at various times a second conductor is needed to give an alternative beat. Not credited in the programme, this was the BBC Philharmonic’s Associate Conductor, Jason Lai. This was a superb performance, which came over more strongly than even Knussen’s NMC recording, particularly in the final pages. The Brown Shipley Hall is a small hexagonal room with bare brick walls, with barely space for the large orchestra. In the confined space the sound reached pain levels; at one point the cor anglais player had both fingers stuffed in her ears.

The Second Concerto is in three sections, the outer two fast (the last a modified reprise of the first) encasing an extended broadly-slow section, which Holloway has described as like a building with two wings, the work of a complex and engaging composer, though why there was such a small audience bothers me. Given that this is a music college, which had devoted three days to this composer, where were the students? I’d have though that the generation raised on disco and rave would have responded enthusiastically to the work’s wild anarchy.

Holloway will never be a trendy composer, but who benefits from the exposure that Chandos, Hyperion and NMC offer. It’s hugely disappointing that Simon Rattle seems no longer to champion the two works commissioned from Holloway by the CBSO, and I do wish NMC could find a way to release Oliver Knussen’s BBC performance of Domination of Black. All we can do, I suppose, is wait until Holloway’s seventieth birthday…

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