Medée … a table of noises … Till

Medée – Overture
Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring)
a table of noises [London premiere]
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28

Colin Currie (percussion)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 July, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Thierry Fischer. Photograph: LephotoIf this particular Proms confection didn’t quite capture the public’s imagination in terms of bums on seats and feet in the Arena, there were still a few oddballs dotted around the Royal Albert Hall – the girl who spread herself out across the two rows of seats in front of her (elegant!), those who just can’t turn their mobiles off (despite being requested to do so) and even using them while the music is being played, and, good one this, clapping during Schumann’s ‘Spring’ Symphony!

Bookending this concert was the Overture to Cherubini’s opera “Medée” (1797) – suitably pulsating and expressive, but needing a smidgen more rehearsal time, especially for the violins – and Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, a straight-laced account, vivid enough but short on wit and black comedy. Good to hear the Cherubini though, especially with overtures an endangered species these days, curiously scored for an orchestra including horns but without trumpets, if not necessarily the first-choice of his oeuvre to fully appreciate Beethoven’s admiration of him or to get as excited about the opera itself as Brahms seems to have been.

Schumann’s wonderful ‘Spring’ Symphony raised the music and performance stakes. Indeed Thierry Fischer had its measure and drew lucid and buoyant playing from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, its rhythmically alive and lyrically sensitive response ideal for Schumann’s playful and dulcet music, lightly tripping in the outer movements (exposition repeats in place and with an impish flute solo from Kevin Gowland in the finale), spacious and solemn in the slow one, and with a scherzo of rustic edge, its two trios nicely differentiated while also belonging, the second one galumphing with mischief.

Colin Currie. Photograph: Chris DawesAs for a table of noises (2007), one can wonder why two piccolo players are antiphonally placed, let alone standing, whether percussion, other than the soloist’s, is really needed, and what if anything lies beyond a range of the advertised ‘noises’, and effects; or indeed whether a series of vignettes, six of them, not forgetting five even-shorter sections called ‘ghost’ (one counterpointing the cadenza), can constitute a concerto when so open-ended (even if lasting 25 minutes) and particularly when the writing for percussion is fairly ‘stock’ and more of an obbligato that is well within Colin Currie’s compass (the soloist granted a choice of instruments and dynamics).

Simon Holt seems not to have wanted to write a conventional concerto – he hasn’t – and if one knows nothing about the piece(s), the ear easily tires of a car-horn, turnstile clatter, twitters (of the onomatopoeic variety), and the equivalent of a Chinese bird-scarer and messaging through the jungle. The scoring itself – without violins and “standard-sized” flutes, clarinets and bassoon, but with respectively alto, bass and contra – certainly diverts the ear though, as does some denser invention. For whatever reason the music of George Antheil came to mind, as did Gunther Schuller’s Paul Klee Studies, but such references are neither here nor there, and probably off the radar, for when one reads the programme note, after the performance, then one learns about Holt’s Great-Uncle Ash (a taxidermist), and sees a photograph of him, and that a table of noises has a very personal familial resonance for the composer, not obvious to the innocent ear, but enough to suddenly be affecting to the perhaps-sceptical listener. Maybe then a table of noises is beyond criticism.

Sticking with percussion, what a great player Steve Barnard is for BBCNOW – pin-point accurate, virtuosic, timbre- and dynamic-conscious, and one of the few timpanists around who is able to hand-stop a note without creating another sound. He’s a class act.

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