A Remarkable Concert Includes the Premiere of Tansy Davies’ Forest

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Tansy Davies, R. Strauss: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Richard Watkins, Katy Woolley, Nigel Black, Michael Thompson (horns); Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 23.2.2017. (CC)

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat Op.73, ‘Emperor’
Tansy Davies Forest – A Concerto for Four Horns (2016, London Premiere)
R. Strauss – Also sprach Zarathustra Op.30

This concert was an example of brilliant programming, as so often, from the Philharmonia. We experienced two explorations of the dynamic between soloist(s) and orchestra, with the pivotal (new) work acting as bridge in its Nature references to the powerful world of Also sprach Zarathustra.

Those au fait with Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto with Harnoncourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (review) might have come prepared for Aimard’s no-nonsense approach to this piece. Salonen is a superb accompanist, and it is good that he was well paired here with a soloist with a similar outlook to his own. Memories of a somewhat catastrophic ‘Emperor’ with the same orchestra and conductor in magnificent form but with the wilful and woefully misguided Lang Lang as soloist at the Royal Albert Hall in March 2012 surface, although none too comfortably. So it was that with the characteristic gesture of baton behind the shoulder before carving an incisive downbeat that Salonen launched Aimard’s ‘Emperor’ with scalpel precision. What Salonen gave in exactitude, Aimard immediately matched in his low-pedal, superbly articulated initial flourishes. Hard-sticked, “authentic” timpani from Antoine Siguré urged the piece onwards; no quasi-Romantic dallying here. Salonen used five double-basses, and they brought a solidity to the harmonic argument of the work.

Aimard is a facially expressive pianist, it has to be admitted, but his clean playing is carved from the most intense intellectualism. It was not, therefore, only the face-pulling that put me in mind of Alfred Brendel. Technical challenges meant nothing to Aimard, and his dynamic range was fully used (the fortissimo chordal exchanges between piano and orchestra in the first movement equally matched). Foregoing his baton, Salonen shaped the slow movement intimately, taking the “un poco moto” to heart and ensuring that things moved forward flowingly. Aimard, who sat stock still during the string opening, gave us a treble that sang beautifully. The transition to the finale, with its prefiguring of the finale’s main theme, was beautifully done; the last movement itself was slower than expected (slower than on the Harnoncourt recording, too). Here, again, it was Beethoven’s own indicator that was honoured (“ma non troppo”). Articulation, again, was flawless from Aimard, as was his extended double trill in octaves. This was a terrific performance, all the stronger for its aversion to sensationalism.

The next concerto came after the interval. Tansy Davies has been making quite a mark of late. Her Re-Greening was given at the Proms in 2015 by the National Youth Orchestra  under Sir Mark Elder: also in 2015, the Twin Towers opera, Between Worlds, was presented by English National Opera at the Barbican. The new work, Forest (fresh off the page: 2016) seems closer in intent to the Paganist turn-of-the-year concerns of Greening, while also acting as what the composer described as an “exploration of the thrilling mechanisms of Nature”. It is “a forest imagined in music,” with all of the deep resonance forests have in the World psyche – think Wagner’s primordial Worlds, perhaps, or the enchantments of fairytale – married to comment on humankind’s input “our current predicament as humans in a dramatically changing environment as climate change becomes more and more apparent”. Coupled with this, Davies also intends the piece as a “celebration of creation and the power that might be found – or re-found – through developing better communication with nature”. The horn’s link with the forest is clear: the sound of the hunt. But it also stirs up links to Weber’s Der Freischütz; in addition, scoring the work for four horns and orchestra inevitably brings resonances of Schumann’s notoriously difficult Konzertstück.

Scored for large orchestra (no horns in the tutti), Davies calls on contrabassoon, glockenspiel, bass marimba, tubular bells, five tin cans (of different pitches) sleigh bells, cabasa, rattle and four tom-toms in addition to harp, woodwind and a full complement of strings. The scoring is deliberately dark from the orchestra, while the horns’ fanfare gestures appear in Davies’ own musical languages, mutated into our own time-stream. There is one particular moment for horns and percussion that is particularly Ivesian. Chthonic low brass later meets an Impressionist moment only to be followed by a reference to high Romanticism. It is a heady mix, and Davies’ writing for horns, while not overtly brilliant in the Schumann way, is highly difficult for the players (Davies is an ex-horn player herself).  The line-up could hardly be bettered, with two current principals (Nigel Black and Katy Woolley) joined by two ex-principals (Richard Watkins, principal of the Philharmonia for twelve years) and Michael Thompson (himself boasting a ten-year tenure). The four worked superbly together, with Watkins’ high register impeccable. Motifs are tossed between the four horns towards the end, something that requires four absolutely equal players. As was, indeed, the case here. Forest is a remarkable work: the presence of a multiplicity of microphones makes one itch for a recording. It would also benefit, beyond doubt, from repeated listening.

Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra is itself a showcase for orchestra. Salonen’s composer’s ear enables textures to be delineated with an impeccable inevitability, a sense of rightness. The work’s opening was a clear link to the Urwelt of Davies’ Forest in this context. The Festival Hall organ was resplendent; climaxes glowed, none less than ‘Sonnenaufgang’ (Sunrise). The string sound was burnished and often radiant, the section working as a burnished whole (special mention to principal violist Yukiko Ogura’s solos); eight double-basses grounded the sound. Salonen’s penchant for detail meant that lower string detail at speed was impeccable; the fugue (‘Of Science’) was severe but its opening supremely pregnant of possibilities, rising to a terrifically energised climax. Salonen is unafraid of being highly gestural and dramatic in this piece, and the results were enlightening. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s solo violin contributions were beautiful, particularly when working in duet with his violin colleague on the first desk, Sarah Oates. The work’s end was superbly controlled by the orchestra.

This was a simply remarkable concert that enabled one to hear with new ears two works from the heart of the repertoire. The placement of Forest between them had a slot to do with that; so, too, did Salonen’s expert grasp of structure and texture.

Colin Clarke

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