Simon Bainbridge Premiere(s)

Diptych, Part 1 [BBC commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.3
Diptych, Part 2 [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Poem of Ecstasy, Op.54

Barry Douglas (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 February, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Probably best known for his Primo Levi song-cycle “Ad ora incerta” (1994), Simon Bainbridge (born 1952) has written several fine orchestral works – including a Viola Concerto (1978) and Fantasia for Double Orchestra (1984). And, as his first major orchestral statement for some years, Diptych (2003/5) is naturally of interest for whatever ‘shifting priorities’ it may show. The expected clarity and refinement of texture is here in abundance, but the extreme concentration of means come as a surprise even in the light of those earlier pieces.

As befits its title, Diptych falls into two parts – clearly defined to the extent that the composer’s preference is that they be performed separately. At this first performance the respective parts opened each of the concert’s halves: rightly so in the case of ‘Part 1’ – its 8 minutes unfold a variety of harmonic entities, all of them brief in duration and hushed in dynamics, yet defined so their identity in the resultant polyphonic ‘web’ is readily perceived. Playing for 23 minutes, ‘Part 2’ builds naturally on the forgoing – though the expansion from chamber to orchestral textures is far from straightforward; the orchestra here being divided into three, essentially soloistic ensembles – each focusing on its own trilogy of two-minute pieces that are variously atomised and also reassembled over the course of the piece.

While Bainbridge’s ear for sonority ensures that such fragmentation never becomes incoherent, any sense of these components gradually fusing into a self-defining whole is far from obvious. It might be worthwhile, after all, performing both parts together; separated by around a minute’s pause, so that their relationship – whether on a micro- or macro-level – could more directly be adduced. Such tentativeness as there was did not seem attributable to the performance, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra responding intently to the sympathetic guidance of David Robertson – whose well-chosen words of introduction set the tone for the intriguing if cryptic music to follow. A revival will hopefully not be long in coming. (Meanwhile, BBC Radio 3’s Listen Again facility is available; hopefully this BBCSO concert was not among the last, Proms aside, of Radio 3’s live as-it-happens broadcasts – Ed.)

The two parts of Diptych were separated (other than by the interval) by an account of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto notable for the lucid and often scintillating playing of Barry Douglas. A sometimes self-effacing pianist, Douglas here left no doubt as to his identity with a work whose Mozartean character would be less remarkable were the outcome not so unmistakably by Bartók. Thewhimsical playfulness of the first movement’s main themes was precisely gauged, and the underlying serenity of the Adagio did not preclude a motivating fervency – as befits its ‘religioso’ marking. A pity that, in the finale at least, the orchestral contribution was less than precise – with the deft interplay of soloist and ensemble often going for little, for all that Robertson is clearly an skilful accompanist.

To round-off the concert, Scriabin’s The Poem of Ecstasy in a performance that conveyed the music’s textural intricacy and harmonic sophistication at the expense of its visceral impact. Much nonsense has been written over the years about Scriabin’s music – not least by the composer himself – and about what it actually embodies or represents. Put simply, this is music that excites as surely as it fascinates, and its innate physicality was not always evident here. For all that Robertson emphasised formal lucidity and brought clarity to even the densest tuttis, the essence of the work was too-oftensold short – not least in an apotheosis where the all-too-audible clang of a bell served to break up the texture accordingly. Even Scriabin did not demarcate his heightened sense of rapture with quite this regular a beat.

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