Two Modern Triumphs in Edinburgh but Fortepiano Fails to Convince

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Adès, Grime, Mozart: Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano & director in Mozart), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Duncan Ward (conductor for Adès and Grime), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 8.12.2016. (SRT)

Adès – Chamber Symphony
Grime – A Cold Spring
Mozart – Piano Concertos Nos. 20 & 22

The pair of contemporary works on tonight’s programme were due to be conducted by the SCO’s principal conductor, Robin Ticciati. However, in the latest in a long run of cancellations due to bad health, Ticciati had to be replaced, and fair play to Duncan Ward for stepping in to lead a pair of pieces that can’t be easy to conduct.

Adès’ Chamber Symphony was inspired by the range and dark sound of the basset clarinet, and its seductive sound is a gift for a texturalist like him. The instrument itself features prominently, ending the work on a passage that’s spellbinding in its peacefulness.  Adès’ triumph, though, is to refract the whole orchestra through the prism of the basset clarinet’s sound. The ensemble sparkles with some beautiful contrasting colours, the screeching high winds and ambling solo trombone standing alongside the shimmering opening or eerie conclusion. It’s the jazz inflections that stand out most, though, with the walking percussion riffs and muted brass glissandi.  Characteristic Adès surprises, such as the jangling flexatone, help stamp his mark on what is, for me, a really successful example of what he does. Helen Grime’s Cold Spring has a more instantly appealing twinkle to it, with its rippling clarinets and chamber textures. It is reminiscent of Britten in places, especially the second movement with its prominent horn solo and, if the “tumultuous” last movement didn’t grab me as much, it’s still an effective piece.

I’ve always been a bit equivocal about the fortepiano as an instrument, and it was Kristian Bezuidenhout’s playing (on record) that finally won me over to its possibilities, so I came to this concert ready to love what I heard. In the event, however, I found the two Mozart concertos a terrible disappointment, and it was mostly due to the fortepiano itself, not necessarily for its own sound but for the problems it faced with the bigger ensemble.

The most fatal problem came in the balance of the blend. For all the fortepiano’s gains in ‘authenticity’, you have to put up with a smaller, more cloistered sound that works fine for a solo recital but needs to be tailored very carefully for a concerto.  They just hadn’t figured it out for the Queen’s Hall acoustic, and the piano was repeatedly drowned out by the big boned sound of the orchestra. That was a particular problem in the first movement of the D minor concerto, which the orchestra played with an even greater edge of severity than normal and very heavily accented trumpets and drums. Against this the fortepiano simply disappeared a lot of the time, and nor did Bezuidenhout himself seem comfortable with it: on more than one occasion he either fumbled a run or seemed to skip a measure.

That balance of sound had knock-on detrimental effects for the musical balance, too.  The ebullient first movement of the E flat concerto built up a tremendous head of steam, with SCO playing at their magisterial best, but on its entry the muffled tones of the soloist dissipated the momentum almost entirely, and he got subsumed into the texture after setting a jolly pace for the final rondo.  Only in the slow movements did something like a proper meeting of minds appear, but the conversational elements that make Mozart’s concertos so special were almost completely missing.  Maybe they’ll sound better in Glasgow tomorrow night, but my scepticism about the fortepiano is now firmly reinstated.

Simon Thompson

2 thoughts on “Two Modern Triumphs in Edinburgh but Fortepiano Fails to Convince”

  1. I heard the concert in Glasgow, and maybe the City Hall acoustics were better, or maybe they had worked on the balance, because I emerged wholly convinced by the forte-piano, having initially been sceptical! Although the piano did diisappear into the orchestra from time to time the compensation, for me, came from the wonderful orchestral scores coming to the fore, everything so beautifully integrated that I was never aware of particular instruments taking centre stage. I am even contemplating looking out for recordings.

    • Thank you for your reflection on the performance you saw to Seen and Heard. Much appreciated.


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