Noseda Returns to Manchester With a Fascinating Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Prokofiev, Casella: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 3.11.2012 (MC)

Verdi: The Sicilian Vespers, overture (1855)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4 (1931)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1911/12)
Casella: Symphony No. 3 (1939/40)

Gianandrea Noseda; photo credit: Ramella & Giannese

I was delighted to see Gianandrea Noseda, the BBC Philharmonic’s conductor, laureate return to the Bridgewater Hall for his first concert this season. Noseda brought a fascinating programme with him. He offered us a fresh and enterprising mix consisting of a rather neglected overture by Verdi; a pair of piano concertos from the Russian master Prokofiev, each at the opposite end of the popularity scale; and a rarely heard symphony by Alfredo Casella that deserves a firm place in the twentieth century symphonic repertoire.

lesser known score from a great composer and the martial strains of Verdi’s overture to The Sicilian Vespers(1855) fitted the bill royally. Played here by more players than could easily have fitted into an opera house pit, Noseda directed an exhilarating performance that provided a palpable sense of anticipation for the actual opera. Although the Verdi overture is a substantial score it was over all far too soon.

Just over a year ago at Manchester’s Royal College of Music I saw Jean-Efflam Bavouzet perform a Haydn concerto magnificently but this was, it seems, the French pianist’s Bridgewater Hall debut. To programme, two of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, one either side of the interval, was a novel idea that worked exceptionally well. First, Bavouzet played the Piano Concerto No. 4 for the left hand, a rarely-heard score that has rather fallen out of the repertory. It was one of a number of works composed specifically for the Austrian pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during the First World War. I marvelled at the virtuosity of Prokofiev’s writing, which Bavouzet played with such riveting sensibility. The impressive Andante was conveyed by the French soloist with a tranquil air of stark beauty.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet; photo Stu Rosner

Bavouzet raised the temperature in the hall with Prokofiev’s short First Piano Concerto, an immediately appealing work that is only occasionally heard on the concert platform. Prokofiev wrote the audacious score prior to the First World War, whilst still a student, causing quite a furore at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Bavouzet pitched into Prokofiev’s youthful and truculent writing with all vigorous conviction he could muster. Often repeated, the forceful four-note opening theme reminiscent of the start of Tchaikovsky’s B-flat minor Concerto soon lodges in the memory. Providing just the right mix of rhythmic energy and dramatic tension, Bavouzet showed that he had the full measure of this brazenly impudent score. The closing section was a raucous romp, a patchwork quilt of colour with the striking opening theme revealing itself once again.

After such delights I did wonder if things could get even better. Well yes they did! I should have known how eminently suited Noseda would be to the red-blooded late-Romanticism of Alfredo Casella’s Symphony No. 3. Taking just over forty minutes to perform, this four-movement work is scored for a large orchestra including five percussionists, together with a thirteen-strong brass section. A product of the early years of the Second World War, this calamitous period in world history must have had a significant effect on Casella’s writing. Making a strong emotional impact, the symphony was predominantly affirmative in character but it came as no surprise that the music was variegated with shadowy and disturbing undercurrents.

Various sources state similarities to Mahler’s music; however, I was persistently hearing Shostakovich, especially his Fifth Symphony, which was written a couple of years earlier, in 1937. I could also hear the influence of Casella’s fellow countryman and close contemporary, Respighi and also suggestions of Hindemith.

Right from the very first pages it was clear that Noseda relished both this music and the opportunity to play it with such a fine orchestra and one he knows so well. Under Noseda’s firm grip in the Andanteone could easily imagine a Shostakovich-like picture of cold, barren landscapes laid to waste. At times there were episodes that felt meltingly beautiful even if an undertow of desolation was never far away.

In the mocking, often grotesque Scherzo Noseda impressively fused the forceful militaristic qualities of terror and fury with a cool, stark beauty. Noseda showed his mettle in the Finale, contrasting the angry martial music with amiable episodes of calm that could easily have depicted a verdant countryside scene. He kept the forward momentum going marvellously. All hell broke loose in the final section, which surged to a declamatory conclusion. On one hand it felt jubilant and on the other hand uncomfortably ferocious.

With such an absorbing programme of relatively unfamiliar music, although there was nothing at all challenging, liberally-minded listeners were surely in their element. Under Noseda the BBC Philharmonic was outstanding throughout. Passions never dwindled in a performance that packed quite a punch. Marvellous!

The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Sunday 25 November at 2.00pm.

Michael Cookson