A Stimulating Pairing of Rihm and Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rihm, Bruckner: Nicolas Hodges (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Lothar Koenigs. Barbican Hall, London, 22.2.2017. (CC)

Rihm – Piano Concerto No.2 (2014, UK Premiere)

Bruckner – Symphony No.7 in E

Lothar Koenigs is a fine conductor: he headed Covent Garden’s Ariadne auf Naxos to great acclaim in 2015 and this challenging programme demonstrated what a fine head he has on his shoulders. He grasps the core of scores well and can clearly inspire his forces to give of their best.

This was the UK premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Second Piano Concerto. Immediately there is a snag: where is the First Piano Concerto? There exist a number of pieces for piano and orchestra/ensemble in Rihm’s output that are likely candidates for the title, but none expressly nominated as such. Here, in a work premiered in 2014 in Salzburg, the orchestra is modestly sized. Rihm’s language is modernist at heart but he expertly weaves into his expressive vocabulary tropes from the Romantic era, be they long-breathed melodies or even constructs that refer to tonality. Nicolas Hodges is a specialist in the music of our time and clearly understood Rihm’s techniques perfectly. So it was that the phrases of the work’s opening movement (of two) were attentively shaped. There seemed to be a Romantic heart to this Andante. Rihm’s scoring, too, can be hyper-delicate: a passage for strings, flute and piano with bass clarinet interjecting terse “comments” of its own stood out as particularly memorable. The second part of the first movement seemed to concentrate on beauty of sound from all concerned; the longer second movement (marked Rondo) found Hodges with a tremendous staccato touch. As the work progressed one realised that the work is brilliantly, transparently scored. Again, moments of beauty impressed, this time one of the episodes scored for oboe and high string harmonics. Against all of this, Hodges displayed fingers of steel, especially in the two cadenzas. The work ends enigmatically, with a single piano note acting as a question mark in sound. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra on top form, clearly giving every ounce of their attention, this was a powerful and noteworthy premiere.

So to Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. No edition was specified, but we did get the cymbal crash to crown the slow movement, heard here with no sense of apology whatsoever. In the first part of the concert, Nicholas Korth had played principal horn; here the first horn part was taken by Martin Owen with Korth leading the Wagner tubas. That information is worth noting as this was one of the most accurate Bruckner Seventh from a horn players’ perspective that has come my way. The trumpets seemed to be having somethjing of an off day, in particular principal Gareth Bimson’s opening of the Scherzo.

Koenigs’ reading revelled in Bruckner’s long lines, right from the long cello melody at the start. Although high strings tended to be harsh-sounding (as one has come to expect from this orchestra of late), the string section as a whole worked well together, finding on occasion real depth of sound. Koenigs’ reading was generally on the fast side, and certainly not prone to longer in the first movement. The Wagner tubas in the well-paced slow movement (not too slow) were impeccably creamy, and it was here that the strings found their greatest resonance and depth. In addition, the Wagner tuba link to the faster, more pastoral section of this second panel made perfect sense here in terms of voice-leading (it rarely does). The movement’s concluding pages were beautifully drawn, the horns and Wagner tubas deep and sustained.

Interestingly, Koenigs found links between the third movement’s more laid-back moments and the textures of the slow movement. The finale, brisk (as one expected by now) verged on the relentless at times; climaxes tended towards the frenetic. The build-up to the work’s close was well judged, however: Koenigs clearly has a solid grasp of the piece and insight to offer.

A most stimulating evening. There was audience noise throughout, and the cynic in me suspects some of it was suspiciously timed: while the almost expected mobile telephony was there, the coughs in the Bruckner seemed to be timed to ejaculate just in Bruckner’s resonating silences.

Colin Clarke

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