traces [UK premiere of Revised Version]
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, Op.21
An Alpine Symphony, Op.64
Lang Lang (piano)
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 27 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The Dresden State Orchestra has appointed Rebecca Saunders as its composer-in-residence from the 2009-10 season, a surprising move, maybe, given this ensemble’s association with tradition and Saunders’s challenging musical thinking that possibly shares a similar orbit to that of Brian Ferneyhough. traces, as revised, and however carefully composed as to its timbres, could be by a number of contemporary composers who are first and foremost occupied by sound and silence; if a ban should now be placed on the use of bowed cymbals, an accordion’s tangy contribution is always welcome, here as part of an atmospheric, quite suspenseful (17-minute) piece that burns slowly to activity during which percussion motifs caught the ear as part of a relatively small orchestra consisting of a few woodwinds, pairs of horns and trumpets and reduced strings.
Fabio Luisi, Staatskapelle Dresden’s chief conductor, and his musicians gave an obviously fine performance of traces (the world premiere of the revision had been the night before in Dresden) and went on to form a close partnership with Lang Lang. A shame then that the pianist gave such an unconvincing account of Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto, contrived and exaggerated, dominated by showmanship, the slow movement soporific, and the coda of the finale taken ludicrously fast as to be shapeless.
Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony was for the most part glorious, save for the lack of extra brass! Strauss’s requirements are extravagant, certainly for only a few bars of off-stage hunting. There was a somewhat apologetic rider in the programme informing that the regular section would play with mutes and that this is somewhat standard for the Staatskapelle when performing An Alpine Symphony. In musical effect it failed: accountancy won over artistry. Other than this, the performance glowed, the Dresdeners’ burnished and refined playing ideal for the music, Luisi unfolding the work organically and digging deep into the music’s agony and ecstasy, its ‘end of an era’ connotations (it’s a First World War piece) and depth of feeling movingly expressed.