BBC SO’s brilliance in a reminiscence of Hitchcock but disappointing in Bruckner

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Baker, Rachmaninoff, Bruckner: Stephen Hough (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Alpesh Chauhan (conductor), Barbican Centre, London 27.5.2022. (MBr)

Alpesh Chauhan conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra

Richard Baker – The Price of Curiosity (BBC Commission: world premiere)
Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Bruckner – Symphony No.9 in D minor

Alpesh Chauhan first impressed me back in February when he covered for Klaus Mäkäla with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This BBC Symphony Orchestra concert was, if anything, an even more imposing achievement – not least because Chauhan, a gifted conductor, tried his hardest to tempt a great performance out of a decidedly recalcitrant orchestra.

The opening work, Richard Baker’s The Price of Curiosity, took us back to the cinema, and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Conventional wisdom has it that this is not one of Hitchcock’s better films. In the canon of his films it is in the middle of great ones like the slightly earlier Dial M for Murder and Rear Window and the later Vertigo and North by Northwest. But The Man Who Knew Too Much is, in Hitchcock’s style, not without its psychodrama, here mostly focused on a mother’s despair at the kidnapping of her son and the manipulation she undergoes by her doctor-husband. Hitchcock’s films are often uncomfortable experiences and in this particular one it is about informed choices being taken away – in this case forcible sedation. But all of Hitchcock’s films can today be viewed as exercises in sadism by the director himself which only adds to the discomfort we experience in watching them.

The film is also notable for two other things: the famous climax in the Royal Albert Hall during a concert conducted by the composer of the score, Bernard Herrmann (although he is conducting Arthur Benjamin’s cantata Storm Clouds). And, of course, Doris Day singing ‘Que Sera, Sera’ (way too often in my view). Richard Baker’s The Price of Curiosity is partly inspired by the thematic concept of denial of choice we see in the film, and how it relates to his own mother and grandmother who experienced similar constraints. The music, which runs for ten minutes or so, uses various pitches taken from both ‘Que Sera, Sera’ and various speech patterns during the sedation scene, as the main body of its architecture. The work’s opening, crushing repeated chord, itself based on crashing cymbals – and which grows ever longer between aggressive and acerbic string writing – makes it feel as if we are beginning from the climax of the film and winding the clips backwards. The scenes of the hotel in Marrakech and the sedation itself are the ‘price of curiosity’ – the music uncomfortable, spiky and searing, just as our viewing experience essentially is.  I sometimes found the references to the song difficult to tease out through the thickets of Baker’s orchestration but the score was delivered with the BBC SO’s usual brilliance and attention to detail.

Stephen Hough plays Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

If The Price of Curiosity was new to me, then Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini almost felt equally unfamiliar since I had not heard the piece for over twenty years. Stephen Hough was the magnificent soloist here and watching his cross-handed playing (and there is an awful lot of it), and the precision of it, the perfection of his fingers across the keys – neither too weighty nor too light – and the flawless pedalling it was no wonder the performance sounded as beautiful as it did. This is a conversational work, one in which the soloist isn’t competing against the orchestra as he is in Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos; it is a work where the orchestra picks up grace notes from the piano, for example in the trumpets of Variation 2. Variation 18, so easy to make sugary and over-romanticise, was here elegant and pristine with just the right amount of tenderness to it. Hough (who has just been knighted by the Queen) can sometimes be a very cool pianist, his temperament just slightly on the side of keeping a distance between himself and his audiences. This doesn’t always work with Rachmaninoff but Hough was clever enough to give us a trade-off: fabulous virtuosity with just a little bit of a cold shoulder. This performance felt like we were on the wildest and most exciting date – but there wouldn’t be another one. And most of us were perfectly fine with that.

And so to Bruckner’s Ninth. What a relief it was the three-movement version we heard, especially given the struggle Alpesh Chauhan seemed to be having with his orchestra. They did clash in the past, rather infamously, with Leonard Bernstein during a recording of Elgar’s Enigma Variations – but in that case the stubbornness was on both sides. Here it appeared to be only on the part of the BBC SO.

Chauhan is clearly gifted and for a young conductor and he seems remarkably self-confident in knowing not only the kind of interpretation he is looking for but, just as importantly, how he wants it to sound. The BBC SO were largely up for the first bit of the challenge; they were resolutely not up for the second bit. Although the brass were confident, but rarely glowed, the strings were astringent. I have rarely heard a Bruckner Ninth sound as ugly as this one.

It is tempting to place the blame at Chauhan’s door – Bruckner’s Ninth is complex, after all. But Chauhan is not a conductor who simply stands there beating time; he uses his body, often at full stretch, and sometimes pressed in towards the orchestra; although he uses a baton his hands are considerably more expressive than many conductors who also use one (Claudio Abbado was like this). It is puzzling why the BBC SO didn’t quite respond to this, and largely a pity.

It’s probably to Bruckner’s advantage that Chauhan does not ply the Ninth Symphony with excessive rubato or the wrong tempo. He doesn’t – like that greatest of conductors of this symphony, Wilhelm Furtwängler – have the coda of the first movement in sight the moment he opens the work, but you sense in future performances of the symphony he may well do so. But barely a lifetime is enough to understand this great symphony. He doesn’t tend to clip phrases; rather, Chauhan sees the movement in long stretches and that is what gave it the fluidity it had. His coda is not the apocalyptic climax we hear in some performances; it sounded rather too contained, just a little over-controlled for my taste with an uneasy balance of tension. And there is a world of difference between an orchestra sounding explosive (as the BBC SO did) rather than giving the impression of it detonating around you. The second movement – basically a scherzo – was on the heavy side, and I think Chauhan, so keen not to fall into the trap of playing the Trio slower than the Scherzo, didn’t really generate enough excitement.

Where Chauhan fought the orchestra more than anywhere else was in the Adagio. This almost felt like a battle of wills – and may have, ironically, achieved something unintended because the great crescendo almost seemed like a ferocious resolution to the tortuous fight that had been happening for the hour beforehand. But it was a long and final climax to what had been an unsettling Ninth.

Marc Bridle

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