Steven Stucky Second Concerto for Orchestra

Second Concerto for Orchestra [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto in G
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 13 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Perhaps because it followed almost immediately what sounded (on the radio) like a sold-out Prom with Maxim Vengerov, or it was the later-than-usual start-time, or because London was drenched in a torrential thunderstorm – but the Philharmonia Orchestra’s annual Prom sold disappointingly, even with a second half of 20th-century classics. Another factor might have been ‘something unknown’, in this case the UK premiere of (in this country) an unfamiliar composer. Those who might have been put off missed a treat.

Steven Stucky (following a short Bach-inspired work commissioned for the Nash Ensemble during Proms Chamber Music in 2000) was fully introduced to the Proms in such fine style with Esa-Pekka Salonen reprising one of the works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall; Stucky’s dedication of his Second Concerto for Orchestra is to both the orchestra and its conductor.

Moreover those thanks get a musical airing in that the first movement – entitled ‘Overture (With Friends)’ – fashions themes from their names (Esa-Pekka: E flat, A, B, E, D, D, A – or his initials E-PS: E, B, E flat – and LAP: curiously A, A, B). Also recognised are other people – officials and sponsors – to do with the piece. They all get a rousing collective musical tribute in this exhilarating movement, with woodwind swirls and brass fanfares, a complete contrast to the opening of the second movement’s set of Variations, which takes as its starting point those woodwind swirls from the opening. Six variations ensue, ending with a passacaglia before the dark close. The finale again returns to the opening movement for its inspiration with an impetus from the oboes’ staccato upward-moving chords. Grabbed by the rest of the orchestra we are returned headlong into fast-moving, rhythmic music that brings the work to its glittering close. With such a champion as Esa-Pekka Salonen, and with the Philharmonia on top form, there could be no doubting the conviction of the performance or the quality of score. It makes me want to hear Stucky’s First Concerto for Orchestra (for the Philadelphia Orchestra).

After the interval, it was the Philharmonia’s bright and scintillating playing that characterised both Ravel’s concerto and his orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano-original Pictures at an Exhibition. The latter Salonen conducted with a Technicolor sweep that brushed aside any suggestion that this so-familiar work might now sound jaded.

Pivoting the concert, François-Frédéric Guy, playing his countryman’s card rather than the usual German Romantic repertoire for which he has been most noted in this country (his forthcoming Queen Elizabeth Hall recital – 4 November 2006 – returns to those reaches: Liszt, Beethoven and Brahms). Imposing in his tails but black, collar-less shirt, he was more than a match for all the technical difficulties Ravel throws at the soloist. Best of all was the long solo introduction to the middle movement, with which Guy held the Royal Albert Hall in the palm of his hands. Utterly magical!

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