United Kingdom Causton, Debussy, Busoni: Garrick Ohlsson (piano), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, European Union Youth Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 23.08.2012. (SRT)
Richard Causton: Twenty-Seven Heavens (UK Premiere)
Busoni: Piano Concerto
While the Eurozone’s economy falls apart at the seams, it’s comforting to realise that the EU can still sustain a youth orchestra in these times of penury, and do so at such a high level. The members of the EU Youth Orchestra are drawn from all 27 member states. They’re an astonishing group of young musicians, playing with style, flair and a remarkable degree of virtuosity, something required from all the three works performed tonight.
As part of their Summer 2012 tour they are premiering Richard Causton’s new work. Commissioned as part of the New Music 20×12, Causton claims that his piece was partly inspired by Blake’s giant Jerusalem poem and by the London Olympics. I struggled to find much of shape or invention in it, though. It rises from the most lightly scored of introductions to full orchestral strength, with a gentle central section surrounded by two more energetic blocks of larger scale music. It relies on a lot of syncopated rhythms and percussion answering each other from opposite ends of the stage – a reference to the rhythms and sounds of East London, I wonder? Some of the string writing is evocative, but the piece didn’t strike me as particularly celebratory, despite Causton’s stated intent. Indeed, I found it rather repetitious and directionless, on the whole, even monotonous in places, almost as if he was trying to impress rather than to write something with soul.
The orchestra played through it manfully, but seemed liberated by the start of Nocturnes, the strings and winds conjuring playing of airy lightness for Nuages that seemed to dissolve into nothing at the conclusion. They then burst into red hot energy for Fêtes, with just enough poetry to stop it from becoming coarse. There was also a lovely shimmer to the orchestral sound in Sirènes, though the ladies of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus sounded a little too straight-laced to be dangerous seductresses! There was a convincing ebb and flow to Noseda’s direction of the suite, too, a work which has many moments that can seem to float off unless there is a quietly firm hand on the tiller.
As for Busoni’s piano concerto, this is a work so gargantuan and unwieldy that any efforts to describe or analyse it seem to flounder on its mind-bogglingly ambitious scale! In his excellent programme note, Kenneth Hamilton jokingly (?) described it as “the Wagner’s Ring of piano concertos” and this naturally tends to provoke extreme reactions. It comes around so rarely in concert that I imagine most of the Usher Hall audience felt slightly bewildered by the 75-minute long experience, though, like Wagner, it also draws fanatical enthusiasts, one of whom was sitting near me. It draws superlatives out of players: it’s a deeply ambitious piece to programme for an orchestra of any kind, let alone a youth orchestra, and the astonishing skill (and stamina!) of the players allowed it to sparkle and flow as it required. Best of all was the fat, über-Romantic string sound in the massive third movement, that underpinned the enormous scale of the work in hand while grounding it in something definite and palpable.
That Garrick Ohlsson could play the piece at all makes him worthy of a medal. That he could do so with such style, passion and musicality – and without a score! – was nothing short of incredible. I’d heard his recording with the Cleveland Orchestra before tonight, but seeing him make those mighty chords is an eye-opening experience, not least in the Tarantella Fourth Movement where his hands repeatedly danced over and under each other with seeming ease. Quietly but triumphantly, Noseda managed to shape this beast into something that just about made musical sense, and the gentlemen of the chorus sounded great as a bunch of ethereal, mystical pantheists – all in a day’s work for the Edinburgh Festival Chorus!
This concert was recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 11 September.
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 2nd September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk