The announcement by the presenter that Stravinsky did not intend Symphonies of Wind Instruments to please the audience or arouse their passions was greeted with titters of laughter. An overheard conversation during the interval signalled that the number of late arrivals to the concert was suspected to be ‘because they didn’t want to sit through the Stravinsky’. Yet the warmth of the applause demonstrated what a commendable performance this was, and that the time is ripe for performances of Stravinsky’s more challenging repertoire. Like guest conductor François-Xavier Roth, I personally find the purity of this piece affecting.

Benjamin Grosvenor © Sussie Ahlburg
Benjamin Grosvenor
© Sussie Ahlburg

It is especially exciting to see this piece performed live and receiving renewed attention, given its initially disastrous reception. Written in 1920, Symphonies of Wind Instruments was composed at the request of the editor of La revue musicale and is dedicated to the memory of Debussy. Stravinsky slightly altered the scoring in his 1947 revision and it was this edition for 23 players that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales performed. The title refers not to symphonic structure, but to the Greek meaning of the term ‘symphony’: ‘sounding together’. The structure of the piece is quite radical, as rather than developing organically, it is constructed of static block-like sections. The first section is solemn and includes both brass and woodwind. It contrasts dramatically with the driving rhythmic vitality of the central section. The danger of playing excessively vigorously at this point was unfortunately realised by the trombones, but this was a minor fault in an otherwise outstanding performance. The final part utilises the chorale that Stravinsky wrote in memory of Debussy and is a truly beautiful conclusion.

In striking contrast to the austerity of this first piece, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor followed. Marking a turning point in Beethoven’s output, this piece is full of emotional drama and upheaval. In terms of structure the piece is largely conventional. Opening in C minor, the key associated with expression of Beethoven’s deepest emotions, the first movement is dark and tempestuous. The second movement (Largo) is simply sumptuous, the ethereal sound providing respite from the preceding turbulence. The final movement, a Rondo, sees the return of a more driving theme, repeated in a battle between piano and orchestra. Following a short piano cadenza, the key shifts from C minor to C major giving an unexpectedly playful ending. Despite his young age (only 19), soloist Benjamin Grosvenor (winner of the keyboard final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition, and the youngest British musician to be signed to Decca Classics) rose to the challenge of this demanding piece written by and for a pianist, delivering an emotionally mature and technically virtuosic performance.

The concert concluded with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste (1936), commissioned by contemporary music pioneer Paul Sacher for Basle Chamber Orchestra. The organisation of the ensemble is visually exciting, with two string orchestras set up on opposing sides of the stage, separated by piano, celeste, harp and timpani. Each of the four movements of this piece has a different character. The first, a fugue, uses a creeping motif and gradually builds to a dramatic climax before folding back in on itself, the strings gradually dying away over the top of celeste arpeggios. The energetic second movement uses material from the first movement, but it is transformed, almost beyond recognition. The theme bounces between the two string groups before ending with a particularly exciting pizzicato section and playful xylophone part. The third section is slower and opens with the unusual effect of glissandi on the timpani. A classic example of Bartók’s ‘night music’, the dream-like quality of the celeste is fully exploited here, adding to the ephemeral sound of the music. The concluding movement is in the style of a Bulgarian style folk dance, contrasting distinctly with the previous movement. The vitality of this movement, with piano battling with the strings, sometimes makes the music draw perilously close to spiralling out of control, yet it was perfectly controlled and executed by the orchestra.

A concert of contrasts, this was a visually and aurally exciting experience by an orchestra and conductor that I would like to see and hear much more of.

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