Slonimsky’s Earbox … Symphonia Domestica

Slonimsky’s Earbox
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
Symphonia Domestica, Op.53

Shai Wosner (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 26 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Donald Runnicles. ©Ken FriedmanWhatever the starting-point of Richard Strauss’s Domestic Symphony, a day in the life of the Strauss family, any such programme can be easily forgotten given the sheer quality and brilliance of the music itself, superbly demonstrated by this magnificent performance, itself suggesting that the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its new Chief Conductor (from 1 September) should be offering us some wonderful music-making in the coming years.

Here was a playful, transparent, tender, affectionate and rumbustious account of Symphonia Domestica, meticulously prepared and played with devotion. Surprisingly, Runnicles didn’t opt for antiphonal violins (which he has tended to utilise in previous London concerts), and he didn’t give us the ad lib quartet of saxophones; other than that, save that the final bars could have been more uninhibited, this was a beautifully judged performance, somewhat ‘symphonic fantasia’, that held the listener spellbound, and, if the Mozartean elegance was echt, there was also, unexpectedly, a kinship with Berlioz revealed.

Runnicles’s way with Domestica was compelling and convincing and stands with the absolute highlights so far of this season’s BBC Proms, namely Haitink’s Mahler 9, Susanna Mälkki’s conducting of Berlioz’s “Te deum”, Mark Elder’s of Mendelssohn’s “Hymn of Praise”, and Act Two of Birtwistle’s “The Mask of Orpheus”.

John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox (inspired by Nicolas Slonimsky and indebted to Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale) is one of his most engaging works, even if it does end up relying too much on repetition, and of the least distinguished invention, and somewhat outstaying its welcome even over only 13 or so minutes. This performance was a cracker, however, very assured in delineating complex rhythms as well as bringing out the music’s freshness and enchanted retreats.

Shai Wosner. Photograph: Marco BorggreveIn between, Shai Wosner gave a very musical account of Mozart’s nominally stormy and passionate D minor Piano Concerto. Not quite, here, for Wosner was somewhat precious, tending to prettify, sometimes smudging detail or being unduly emphatic. Even so, there was much to admire in Wosner’s generally unaffected playing; yet there was also a lack of personality, but he did come more into his own with Beethoven’s cadenza for the first movement and even more so with his own striking one for the finale. Just as memorable was the virtual attacca into the slow movement (signalled by Runnicles, and thankfully nobody applauded!) – unusual but it worked – and the contribution of the woodwinds and lower strings was consistently ear-catching.

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