Virga [LSO/UBS Sound Adventures commission: World premiere]
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2

Barry Douglas (piano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 July, 2007
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

This was the last concert of the London Symphony Orchestra’s 2006-7 season. It went with a bang. The orchestra surpassed itself – as did Yan Pascal Tortelier.

Virga (the latest in a series of ongoing commissions) – referring to a particular cloud formation where “streaks or wisps of precipitation fall from a cloud but evaporate before reaching the ground” – portrays an imminent storm. Crackling agitation in the sky and growling from (it seems) the earth constitute the ominous prelude to a hushed stillness. Helen Grime (born in 1981) demands a large orchestra. Her use of it is sparing, authoritative and bold. She has an acute ear – adroitly finding matches for the sounds she seeks in the sounds particular instruments are capable of making. She strengthens flutes with piccolos and contrabassoons with double basses. A very brief quiet opening is followed by rough-voiced outbursts. Jagged rhythms from rasping brass and pounding timpani cram the sky. Abrupt silences follow: unnerving. Then the sky subsides into an uneasy calm; upper strings create the tone here.

Helen Grime is one to watch. With perspicacity, she writes: “I find it easier to write static music, but rhythmic freedom – something that has real ebb and flow – is something I am for. I’m always after that pulse.” That’s precisely what I heard.

The Tchaikovsky was hectic and exciting – a bravura performance. The first movement built up to a white heat, with a brisk pace, razor-sharp attack and powerful rhythms. The length of this movement can pall. Tchaikovsky can be made to seem aimless and long-winded. Not here. With thrusting, insistent drive, the work leapt forwards with the energy and exuberance of comparative youth. Barry Douglas gave an extremely accomplished performance, taking care to respond to the slightest changes of mood and tempo. His playing is commendably firm, even stately – and he has a most adroit dexterity, too. The slow movement passed agreeably enough before jerking us into the frenzied exuberance of the finale. The orchestra’s momentum carried forwards towards greater and greater volume at what seemed ever-increasing speed. Heart, however, was missing.

Métaboles (1965), written for the Cleveland Orchestra and George Szell, is a showpiece. Dutilleux’s (then) new-found modernism was agreeably accessible, recalling Messiaen and Boulez – the idiom-change recalled Vaughan Williams’s Fourth Symphony, too. There was a sober, reserved composure about the music – even when it was loud and impassioned. The LSO responded precisely.

And, then, some glorious Ravel – ardent and sensuous. Under Tortelier the LSO was totally at ease with Ravel’s paradoxes of cool vitality, colourful reserve and impassioned remoteness. Glittering and varied experience is here – a nature-picture of dawn and sunrise; a pastoral myth of classical formality; a cavorting lower-life pantomime. In the orgiastic ‘Danse générale’, the LSO – swirling and heady – brought a carnival of joy: perfumed, primal and noisy.

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