Incomprehensible New Dessner Work and Disappointing Rachmaninov

15/04/2018

Stravinsky, Dessner and Rachmaninov: Katia Labèque (piano), Marielle Labèque (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / John Storgårds (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 13.4.2018. (AS)

StravinskyJeu de cartes

Dessner – Concerto for Two Pianos (world premiere)

Rachmaninov – Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

Bryce Dessner is an American musician who combines playing guitar in the indie rock group The National, which he founded in 2001, with writing concert music. His own programme note told us nothing about his concerto, but was entirely devoted to how he met and became friends with the Labèque sisters and how much he admires their art. He wrote his new work for them, but it was actually commissioned jointly by the LPO, an organisation called the Borusan Culture Arts Centre, the Dresdner Philharmonie, the Orchestre de Paris, and the Orquestra Nacionales de España. An impressive list that suggests a lot of behind the scenes promotion and persuasion. One wonders, however, whether the LPO management had the chance to see the score before committing the orchestra to a premiere performance.

The work begins with a crack of a whip and an orchestral tutti bang, with lots of scales played by the energetic piano duo, then a banal little tune, launched by the pianists and repeated by the orchestra, then a section featuring many keyboard repeated notes – and so on. The basic idiom is tonal, with keyless splashes of loud orchestral noise. We then get a second section or movement with more little tunes, more repeated notes, followed by an insistent moto perpetuo orchestral crescendo involving repeated chords, after the style of the minimalists. A final section involves piano tinklings and a main section of what can only be described as piano and orchestral doodling.

The technical virtuosity of the Labèque sisters was to be admired, certainly, but how such a formless, randomly episodic concoction could take up performance space in the Royal Festival Hall and played as part of the LPO’s concert series is beyond comprehension.

The concert had begun with an unusual performance of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes. Perhaps there is a tendency these days to take the composer’s middle neoclassical period works too quickly. If so, Stravinsky himself originally encouraged this trend, since his later recordings of these pieces often favour faster tempi than the older ones. Storgårds certainly employed slower tempi than we are used to hearing throughout the work, and this proved to be an interesting diversion from the norm. The music seemed to breathe very easily and naturally. The offbeat rhythms came across particularly clearly: they had a distinctive bouncy quality, and the many humorous elements in the music were brought out strongly.

If slower than usual tempi worked well in Stravinsky they certainly didn’t in Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. The mighty upsurge of energy that follows the quiet opening of the work was rendered in a sluggish manner, and the heartfelt, romantic sweeps of melody that follow emerged in a very tame, undernourished fashion. Storgårds’s conducting technique is quite strenuous, with elbows working hard, and this tended to make the phrasing somewhat stolid, when what was needed was a lighter touch that a flick of the wrist would have obtained. Some of Storgårds’s changes of tempo and pulse seemed to work against the natural flow of the music and altogether if was a low temperature account of the movement.

More odd phrasing marred the progress of the slow movement, and though the Allegro section (or movement within it) was well up to tempo there was still a certain inflexibility. In the last movement Storgårds introduced some applications of expression that seemed contrary to the music’s nature, and at the very end he abandoned his penchant for slow tempi and whipped up the last bars of the symphony in a hectic, frenzied manner. It was a most disappointing performance of this wonderful work, completed in 1936 and thus almost the last great flowering of the romantic spirit.

Alan Sanders

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