This was an occasion when four stars ran the gamut from a transcendently beautiful, definitely-five-star opening movement of the Haydn, to a distinctly ropey, roundabout-three-stars opening movement of the Brahms, with an ebullient, four-star Ligeti sandwiched in between.
Having remarked, a couple of weeks ago, on the rapidity with which the classical style evolved from the baroque, Haydn’s ‘philosopher’ symphony dates from around the same time as the late Rameau performed by the RSNO, and although it is markedly sophisticated in its depth of perspective – the extending duration of its harmonic arcs – by comparison, it is nevertheless a somewhat exotic creature, cast in the form of the sonata da chiesa with its slow opening movement.
This is an adagio in the fullest sense of the word: leisurely in pace, but also serenely ‘at ease’, its two thematic strands sounded simultaneously, a simple arpeggio theme against a walking bass. Formally it resembles a sonata in the manner of Scarlatti, with both halves repeated, and both halves being more or less the same length. In performance it wended between forte and piano with faultlessly graded elegance and symmetry.
Although the ‘philosopher’ is the work of a young and earnest composer, the second, and certainly the fourth movements both show signs of the irrepressible wit that marks the later master, despite the distinctively plaintive timbres lent by the unusual scoring for cors anglais rather than oboes.
The same inbuing of wit is not so true of Ligeti’s chamber concerto, though perhaps his dazzling piano concerto performed a couple of years ago sets an impossible standard. Having written about being taken by surprise by that work, the present concerto turned out to be reassuringly familiar: dense and intense in its rhetoric yet virtuosically lucid in its articulation. In that latter respect, it is something of a party piece for the section principals who make up the ensemble.
It is striking how of-its-time Ligeti’s score is, exhibiting a little of that slightly ridiculous seriousness of purpose that was around in the European avant garde of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (For that matter, the array of keyboards on stage – piano, harpsichord, harmonium, celeste – looked a bit like some old prog rock band’s stage setup.) Unlike many of his contemporaries, though, Ligeti deploys repetition in a way that is at once like and unlike that of the developing New York minimalist style. It is unlike, needless to say, in its concentrated complexity; but there is a linearity of contrapuntal line that is strongly reminiscent, and at some points the sheer motor-rhythmic drive reminds one of Michael Nyman in particular.
Tom Poster stepped in at short notice to take on the Brahms second piano concerto, owing to an injury sustained by the previously advertised soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. It would be harsh, then, to berate him for a rather untidy first movement. Fortunately, though, he found a breakthrough point in the notoriously exposed solo just after the big tutti in the second movement. He totally nailed it, giving it a magical fluidity, and thereafter seemed to relax and become enchanted by the piano’s relationship with the orchestra – the point being that the chamber forces’ textures bring out details, especially in the woodwind writing, that one seldom appreciates in the more customary grand symphonic interpretations.
While the credit for this owes in part to simple acoustics, Ticciati’s skill in balancing timbres and shaping lines was once more evident. In particular, he found an approach to the fearsome scherzo which harnessed the manic drive to its lyrical counter without – for the most part – falling into the trap of making the latter so desperately wet as to destroy the momentum. This has the makings of a fine interpretation. For his part, Poster – in a notably strong third movement especially – delivered an absorbed and ultimately fluent reading after that shaky start, drawing his audience into a sense of enchantment that isn’t what one would usually expect from this monster of a concerto.
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