A North-American theme in Manchester

03/04/2017

Harbison, Barber, Rachmaninov: James Ehnes (violin), BBC Philharmonic / James Feddeck (conductor). Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 1.4.2017. (RBa)

John Harbison (b. 1938) – Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra) (1985)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) – Violin Concerto (1939, rev. 1948)
Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) – Symphony No. 2 (1906-108)

An American theme could at a stretch be claimed for this concert. There is no contrivance about this when it comes to Harbison and Barber. As for Rachmaninov, he made a home in the USA for much of the period after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Conductor James Feddeck, not yet a well known name in the UK, was born in New York and studied at Oberlin and Aspen. He has taken guest fixtures in the UK—Birmingham and Bournemouth—and we will surely hear more of him. His is a promising talent indeed and unlike a few conductors I have encountered recently (including Christian Lindberg at his Sibelius concert in Liverpool on 23 March 2017) stays faithful to the baton. Violinist James Ehnes is a Canadian, thus a North American.

For a Saturday night, the Bridgewater Hall was far from full, with the gallery and choir empty and much of the circle patchily filled. It was a shame because the BBC Phil’s programme was not at all forbidding. It began with the John Harbison Foxtrot, coincidentally written in the same year as John Adams’s Foxtrot from The Chairman Dances which also connects with an opera: Nixon in China. There have been other Foxtrots including, almost fifty years ago, Peter Maxwell Davies’ St Thomas Wake Foxtrot on a Pavan by John Bull (1969). Harbison has been rather over-run by the American minimalists. His teachers were Piston and Sessions, a traditionalist and an atonalist. The large orchestra, bigger even than that for the Rachmaninov, piles in with great wailing clouds of dissonance. Huge hammerheads billow and collide—bell-sounds smear, wail and melt in what feels like a gothic storm over Gotham City. As the strife subsides, a more dreamy atmosphere prevails, with period percussion and wind conjuring the twenties. The clouds and conflict return before a cheeky pay-off brings to an end this brief showpiece. I should add that this site carries reviews of Harbison’s entire opera The Great Gatsby. The whole concert is to be broadcast, so you can hear the Harbison on BBC Radio 3 as well as on a commercial CD if you can find it: Decca Argo “Dance Mix” 444 454-2.

After what was the toughest entry in the programme, Barber’s short and succulent Violin Concerto followed in the hands of an impressive soloist very much au fait with the work; he recorded it for Onyx. The orchestral piano also appears in this Concerto in a band significantly reduced from its complement for the Harbison. Both solo violin and orchestra picked up on Barber’s fragile tenderness and Feddeck judged the often slow bloom of this score to a tee. Apart from one occasion where the violin was drowned out, the dynamics were very nicely judged. That egalitarian balance might come as a slight shock to those—most of us—familiar with the solo spotlight favoured by record companies in concertos; the ear soon adjusts. The sighing despair of the Andante was nicely conveyed. A special mention should be made of the two trumpets who impart a jagged tragedy and the principal oboe’s yielding song was eloquently done. The short firefly flight of the finale flashed past. Very warmly greeted, Ehnes then treated the hall to a silvery and finally white hot encore: the last movement of Bach’s Sonata in G minor.

The energetic Mr Feddeck, fluently active on the podium, led a soulfully sculpted Rachmaninov Second Symphony after the interval. This epic hyper-romantic piece thankfully is nowhere near as unfamiliar in concert as it used to be. Highlights included the hoarse viola section and the sharply etched brass in the first movement. The occasionally Rimskian second movement romped gloriously and, while this is mid-period Rachmaninov, the solo clarinet part looks forward delectably to the Symphonic Dances. That same instrument helped carry the forlorn sobbing weight of the Adagio which registered to full effect. Feddeck saved the wildest propulsion for the exultant finale with phrases tumbling over each other in the last few moments. All in all a performance that will live on in the memory.

Rob Barnett

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