A Superb Account of Tippett’s Fourth Symphony

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lloyd, Brahms, Tippett: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), The Barbican, London, 12.4.2013 (GDn)

Jonathan Lloyd: old racket (world première)
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1
Tippett: Symphony No. 4

The BBC Symphony Orchestra has been brave, and possibly even visionary, in programming a cycle of Tippett Symphonies under Sir Andrew Davis. These are works that get occasional outings, and none can be considered unduly neglected, but the general attitude to them is usually one of grudging respect. Yet both orchestra and conductor brought enthusiasm and insight to Tippett’s music this evening, and showed just why he deserves an honoured place in the repertoire.

The Tippett Fourth Symphony was coupled with a new work from Jonathan Lloyd and the Brahms First Concerto played by Stephen Hough. Lloyd’s old racket was commissioned under the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Elgar Bursary scheme. The history of this scheme is fascinating: it uses the royalties that the Elgar family has accrued from Anthony Payne’s completion of the Third Symphony to commission works written in a style of which Elgar may have approved. In this day and age, that’s not necessarily a virtue, but, as Anthony Payne himself has demonstrated, stylistic studies in the spirit of Elgar can produce worthwhile results.

Even so, Lloyd’s old racket is a frustratingly unambitious work. It is quite an achievement to set a string orchestra against a string quartet that is tuned a quartertone sharp and produce results that still sound like Elgar! The piece has a promising opening, the string quartet playing alone and offering a zesty scordatura tone with their raised pitch. But the rest of the work is based on a four note motif that quickly loses any interest or appeal, especially as it appears in every single bar. Lloyd injects a quirky humour into the score, and continually frustrates any sense of tonal centre through quartertone portamento slides at the ends of phrases. Basing a fifteen-minute piece on a single four note motif would stretch the imagination of any composer, and Lloyd’s invention fails to justify the premise. On the other hand, he does fulfil the curious and anachronistic terms of the commission, which requires a rare talent.

Stephen Hough is undoubtedly one of the finest pianists of our age, but sadly he wasn’t on form this evening. His Brahms First was full of wrong notes, ragged passage work and misfiring interjections. Some of the most crucial passages were fluffed, including the launch into the finale, which was a real shame. Even more frustratingly, his genius at the keyboard did occasionally shine through. The way that he can lead the ear down into the mists in the piano’s lower register, for example, or the way he can turn the mood around in a split second, introducing a new idea as if he’d thought of it on the spot. Hough’s muscularity was also very much in evidence, as in the eruption from the piano that concludes the first movement coda, which was a real treat in this performance. Despite the fact that his fingers clearly weren’t doing what he wanted of them, Hough was still prepared to take risks. Nothing here was workaday, nor was anything ever predictable. But technically the performance just didn’t add up. No doubt he’ll be back to his brilliant self when he returns to perform the Brahms Second Concerto next month.

There were no such concerns with the Tippett, which was given a legendary performance by Davis and the BBC forces. Davis is really in his element with this music. He has an innate feeling for its sensibility, a small part of it English pastoral, a much larger part anarchic. The orchestra performed throughout with clarity and passion. The piece is a real workout for them, with the spotlight pointed on every section at one stage or another. The strings coped well with the fast, scurrying music in the earlier sections, the woodwinds were suitably brash and austere later on. Each of the virtuosic turns from the brass soloists was well handled, and the tuned percussion were able to integrate their flourishes and extended runs into the orchestral texture without ever sounding like mere decoration. Rather than use a recorded voice for the breathing, a live “breather” was employed, and to excellent effect. He was able to bring a surprisingly musical sensibility to the part, which calls for a range of dynamics, and also benefits from the changes in timbre a live breather can bring. The Fourth Symphony is not an underperformed work but it is all too rare that it is presented in a performance of this quality. The respect in which Tippett is held in this country, and beyond, could well be transformed into a real passion for his music if it was always performed to this high standard.

Gavin Dixon

This performance was broadcast live and is available to hear online until 19th April at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rrck3