A Disappointing Pairing of Birtwistle and Brahms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Birtwistle, Brahms: Paul Lewis (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Harding (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 20.5.2014 (CC)

Birtwistle                    Earth Dances (1986)
Brahms                       Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15

There were two huge works in this programme, both bold pieces of astonishing power. There are some concerts that one knows will stay with the listener for the duration of one’s lifetime: the World Premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances, back in 1986, was one such for this writer. Then – on March 14, 1986 to be exact –  the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Peter Eötvös. The indelible impression was one of a piece of primal force, hugely impressive from whichever angle. Here, the performance formed part of the 80th birthday celebrations for Birtwistle: Earth Dances is a modern classic and its unrelenting refusal to compromise, to pander to an imagined public, seems to come from another age.

Birtwistle’s score speaks with a depth that seems to originate from a time before time. It sounds complex, with the various ideas – “layers” or “strata” – being juxtaposed in ever-new combinations – the “earth dancing” that led to the title. The piece heaves towards climaxes, the textures always dense but never turgid. But right from the beginning in this LSO performance there was something amiss. Harding did not wait to begin, but leapt straight in – silence is surely vital before we enter Birtwistle’s world. Neither did the acoustic help: one could see massed strings valiantly pounding out figures, but one could hear virtually nothing below the wailing wind and ejaculatory brass gestures. Balancing out long woodwind lines that seemed strangely macabre – in fact at times it felt as if it could be that this was a musical description of an H. P. Lovecraft creation – were occasions when it seemed Harding was looking to soften the argument, as if seeking plateaux on which to rest. Birtwistle is not really that kind to the listener; or rather, his script is different. Earth Dances is defined by a chthonic elementalism that never really arrived here. The LSO is a Rolls Royce of an orchestra, and the ride was all too smooth. At one point I thought of Ravel, which could conceivably have been some sort of revelation on Harding’s part, but unfortunately the suspicion is that it was accidental, the result of an emotional dumbing down that did the score few favours. Harding looked to, and searched out, the rhythmic play held by the score: in short, lots of dances, not so much earth.

Paul Lewis is a fine player, as his Beethoven Sonata cycle on Harmonia Mundi conclusively proved. Harding opted for antiphonal violins, which works well in this work. But he is no Brahmsian: he has neither the lyricism, nor the attack, nor the long-range harmonic grasp. His conducting style is interesting: there were times when his baton flew behind his shoulder, Salonen-like. But Salonen achieves a precision that was largely lacking here. The sense of organic workings in the massive opening tutti – Brahms’ pre-echo of Earth Dances, possibly – was blunted, so much so that one waited impatiently for Lewis’ entry.

Lewis has much to commend him, not least excellent legato and beautiful tone. The finest movement by far was the central Adagio, where there was a more pronounced sense of communication between soloist and orchestra; the finale, too, had much to recommend it, particularly from Lewis, whose cadenza was awe-inspiring. Yet the whole was not one jot greater than the sum of its parts. The over-riding impression of the evening was that neither piece on the programme was given its full due; both works in their own way are titans, and neither came across as such.

Colin Clarke

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