Suckling Sets Musical World in Motion with his Piano Concerto Premiere

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Suckling, R. Strauss: Tom Poster (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Thierry Fischer (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 13.10.2016. (SRT)

Mozart: Overture, The Marriage of Figaro
Suckling: Piano Concerto (SCO Commission: world premiere)
R. Strauss: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

This was an evening of delicate sounds, huge rumblings and exquisite collaborations, some nearly a century old and some brand new. Martin Suckling is a composer with whom the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have worked closely before, and commissioning a piano concerto from him suggests they are taking their relationship up to a new level. Suckling wrote it for Tom Poster, a friend of his from undergraduate days, and I found it not only interesting and varied, but in places rather beautiful.

Suckling writes in the programme notes that he wanted to create a concerto where “the soloist, rather than being a heroic protagonist striving against the might of the orchestra would instead somehow set the musical world in motion.” Be that as it may, sections of the concerto sounded very combative to me, such as the opening when the soloist’s rapid, sometimes pretty frenzied note-bashing at the top of the keyboard seems almost to lay down the challenge to the orchestra to see what they can do to counter it.

The middle three movements are linked Intermezzi, and the mood of the first of these is rather similar, as the piano busily hurls down the gauntlet to the other players. Their response here is remarkable and surprising, however, with deep, ominous rumblings from the basses, which seems almost like the music from a dark science fiction film, something I also heard in the repeated string glissandi of the opening movement.

If the piano is the animus then the other Intermezzi seem more to give it Suckling’s plan of setting the musical world in motion, and some of the textures there are quite spellbinding. In fact, I enjoyed hearing Suckling’s experiments with the orchestral textures throughout, be it the percussive demands for the players to strike their instruments, or the sometimes unusual combinations of players, such as the sepulchral contra-bassoon and basses, or the spindly duets between the piano and other soloists, including even the claves at one point! The finale (an “almost-passacaglia,” as Suckling calls it) is a satisfying culmination, unfolding slowly and hypnotically from the bass up, its theme spiralling around the piano like a double-helix, while the piano does its own thing that, nevertheless, seems to fit it very well.

It’s a really interesting work that I’d like to hear again. It’s only a shame there weren’t more people to hear it. I guess it’s one of the quirks of the SCO’s existence that they could have a busy Usher Hall for Mozart symphonies last week, then a sparse Queen’s Hall for a new piece tonight. Well done to them for commissioning it, though. I don’t always love the SCO’s catalogue of premieres, but I do love the fact that they keep on commissioning them. In a lean time for the arts in general, they’re not only a rock, but also a refreshing breath of adventure.

Tom Poster also gamely took the orchestral piano part for Strauss’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite, which sounded delightful throughout. I first heard this suite when the SCO played it back in 2010 in what turned out to be their last concert under Sir Charles Mackerras, and it has grown on me enormously since then. I said at the time that you don’t associate Strauss’s music with a chamber orchestra, and it’s obviously impossible for the SCO to tackle the big tone poems. This sort of repertoire suits them brilliantly, though, with its emphasis on small-scale effects and the partnership of individuals. It helps that the orchestra have also recorded Ariadne auf Naxos, the work that grew out of the original collaboration that involved Gentilhomme, and you can hear one of the Composer’s themes as an oboe solo (played beautifully tonight) in the suite’s overture. Elsewhere everything worked, from the dazzling violin solo of the Master Tailor (played by guest leader Benjamin Gilmore) to the sparkling ensembles of the final banquet. Thierry Fischer, standing in for Robin Ticciati, whose back injury, we are told, appears still not to have healed properly, massaged and coaxed the sound like an old master, and the frequent smiles exchanged between the players said a lot. If Mozart’s Figaro overture was ultimately just a filler, then at least it was an exquisitely played one.

Simon Thompson

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