Beethoven as an Undemanding Epilogue After Modern French Works

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Grisey, Dufourt, Boulez, Beethoven: Nicolas Hodges (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, Ilan Volkov (conductor), Barbican, London, 22.1.2014 (GDn)
Gérard Grisey: Mégalithes
Hugues Dufourt: On the Wings of the Morning
Boulez: cummings ist der Dichter
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

Even by BBCSO standards, Grisey’s Mégalithes is a whacky concert opener. The horn section sits around the front of the podium, facing away from the audience, and the rest of the brass section is distributed around the auditorium, providing antiphonal effects that bounce around front to back and left to right. It’s an early work, dating from 1969, when Grisey was still a student of Messiaen and the Paris Conservatoire. There’s no spectralism as such here, but all of the musical preoccupations that we now identify with that school are very much in evidence. Performance techniques are “extended” to say the least, and the pitch content of the music is the last of the composer’s concerns. Instead, he has the brass players create all manner of semi-pitched and unpitched effects with their instruments. But radical as the sounds are, the linear structure of the music is surprisingly conventional. The antiphony is clearly discernible, with a sound effect – slapping the mouthpiece to create a pop, say – proposed in one corner of the hall, then repeated in another corner with some slight elaboration added. And the music builds to climaxes through gradual crescendos and increasing weight of texture then ebbs back to a state of repose. Compared to the structural obscurity of Grisey’s mature work, this piece proceeds with the formal clarity of a Haydn sonata.

Next came the Dufourt concerto, and that was whackier still. Actually, concerto is the wrong word for this piece, which carries the title On the Wings of the Morning. It may be an extended work for piano solo and orchestra, but it continually resists all of the gestures and rhetoric that characterise the form. It’s a new piece, written in 2012 and this evening receiving its UK première – as was the Grisey piece – and it is very much in the spirit of the spectralist movement. In fact, Dufourt is responsible for the term “musique spectral”, although he seems more like a disciple of that movement’s leaders than a trend setter himself. The music here is all about inscrutably complex and gradually shifting textures. The large string section rarely settles on a stable pitch, instead moving around in tremolo glissandi in a constantly shifting web of sound. The winds are all engaged in various extended performance techniques, at least as many as in the Grisey, although this time the resulting sounds are usually pitched. Against all this Nicolas Hodges pounds away at the piano keys. He’s usually half obscured by the orchestra, but that is clearly deliberate, and he only occasionally rises to the surface with some emphatic fortissimo gesture, usually at the top of the keyboard. Despite the breadth of this work, the piano part is surprisingly sporadic, mostly consisting of short snatches of highly articulate music, each followed by a couple of seconds of silence before the next begins.

Against all the odds, the work seemed to have a nominal three-movement structure, with a quiet, slow interlude between the vast, monolithic opening and closing sections. The performance seemed a little vulnerable here, as if the greater scrutiny the sparse textures afforded allowed us to hear the individual players wrestling with their obviously impossibly hard parts. No such problems for Nicolas Hodges though; he was his usual unflappable self, sitting attentively but relaxed at the piano, seemingly oblivious to the speed at which his hands were moving around the keyboard and the violent extremes of sound that they were producing. It’s a fascinating piece, and the colours and textures that make it up are endlessly engaging, but it could do with more imaginative structuring. The incessant tutti that makes up about the first half of the work clearly has much going on inside it in terms of gradual evolution of texture and harmonic colour, but when it subsides into the quiet central section, the music up to that point is remembered as just a barrage of sound, its details lost to all but the most attentive.

cummings is der Dichter continued the French modernist theme. The BBC Singers joined a reduced BBC SO and demonstrated their unquestioned skill in this, their core repertoire. The sheer competency of the performers, combined with Volkov’s reluctance to push the more overt sections, made this a technically accomplished but slightly comfortable reading. On the regular occasions that Boulez whips up a storm – albeit usually a very brief one – in the instrumental parts, the drama seemed to be over before it had started. The BBC Singers didn’t benefit from being positioned in the middle of the stage rather than at the back. It meant they were deprived of the amplifying effect of the back wall, reducing both the volume and the detail of their contributions.

Why tack Beethoven Seven onto the end of a concert like this? If it was intended to get bums on seats then it failed. If, on the other hand, it was meant as a balm for our by then much bruised ears, then perhaps it did its job. This wasn’t a particularly distinguished performance – the symphony was no doubt at the bottom of the list of rehearsal priorities – but it was a lot of fun. Volkov hadn’t done much to unify the phrasing within or between sections, nor was the balance particularly impressive, but he was clearly enjoying himself. He had a big smile on his face throughout the first movement, and that feeling was infectious, spreading to all the players in the orchestra. It was all a bit rough around the edges, and there were one or two quite serious ensemble problems, especially between the strings and winds in the development of the first movement. It had redeeming features too, the incessant drive of the finale was impressive, and the symphony ended well (although the first two movements didn’t). A fun rendition, but even from the opening bars there was a feeling that the main substance of the evening was behind us, and that the Beethoven was not so much a grand conclusion to the performance as an undemanding epilogue.

Gavin Dixon

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard online until 29 January at: