Alan Rawsthorne

Peter Grimes – Four Sea Interludes
Piano Concerto No.2
Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Howard Shelley (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 5 September, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There could not have been a bigger contrast between the two halves of this Prom. In the first we heard two near-contemporary Britains, Benjamin Britten and Alan Rawsthorne, both emotionally restrained in their musical styles, which contrasted with Tchaikovsky’s highly personal Fourth Symphony, virtually dripping in blood, sweat and tears.

What unified the positive effect of this concert were the outstanding performances of a motivated orchestra under an inspirational conductor, one of the most talented of his generation. Britten’s Four Sea Interludes exuded the salt-spray of the North Sea, which so inspired the composer in his opera, “Peter Grimes”. The sound of gulls singing their cries was caught with great fidelity by the woodwind section and the final ‘Storm’ was taken at a breakneck pace, well realised by this on-form ensemble from the Principality.

Centenary composer Alan Rawsthorne never wore his heart on his sleeve and his once-popular Piano Concerto No.2, written for Clifford Curzon, received a marvellous performance from Howard Shelley well supported by the attentive Gamba. The work’s problem, for the most part, is that although the orchestra introduces ear-catching melodies the piano is never allowed to add any further melodic interest. Rather its digressions are rather grey, albeit sympathetically written for the soloist. The finale, at least, has a tune that can be whistled, and the opening movement’s flute melody is haunting. But too many passages meander. Indeed it is the absence of any strong emotional pattern in Rawsthorne’s music that reduces its potential.

If Rawsthorne’s music, this concerto never fully engages with the audience, this cannot be said of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony – one of his most emotional statements. In performance this can spill over into sentimentality but Gamba kept tempos on the move throughout. The brass launched the first movement with splendid power and the music was projected with a fierce momentum. In an interpretation such as this it is easy to relate such music to life’s ups and downs – which are so accurately related by Tchaikovsky in this magnificent work.

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