Something of a horror theme held together 75% of this BBCSO concert and gave the slightly dotty programming some logic. Hitchcock’s Norman Bates meets Bartók’s death defying Mandarin, by way of Schoenberg angular 12 tone Piano Concerto that now seems to have an uncanny resemblance to a lot of the music used by Hammer films, supplied by his disciples such as Elizabeth Lutyens and Humphrey Searle. However, we were left with odd man out Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. But then it turns out that Gershwin and Schoenberg were neighbours in Hollywood and played tennis together!

James Gaffigan © Mat Hennek
James Gaffigan
© Mat Hennek

The eccentric evening kicked off with Bernard Hermann’s own arrangement of his music from Hitchcock’s film, which he called Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra. A ten minute compilation of the three main strands of the score; the car journey, with its biting chords and obsessive ostinato, the slow angular canonic writing depicting the eeriness of the motel and the shower scene with its famous slashing motive. The BBCSO strings certainly dug deep and produced a rhythmically incisive and lean performance of the piece that powerfully delivered the necessary bleak thrills.

Next came Schoenberg's Piano Concerto from 1942, performed by Kirill Gerstein. This is a work that combines conventional orchestration and structure with the composer’s uncompromising 12-tone approach to melody and harmony. Particularly in this relatively late piece one senses a longing in the composer to find his way back to tonality. However, he sticks rigidly to his guns and the result is a very accomplished and unsettling piece. In the hands of Kirill Gerstein, the clarity and lightness of the piano writing were emphasised and when power was needed he could certainly deliver. Overall it seemed a very balanced and honest performance which the orchestra responded to with accuracy and enthusiasm.

After the interval Gerstein returned to give us a very special account of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, in the second, slightly expanded, arrangement by Ferde Grofé that still retains that jazz band feel. From the word go, with that rasping clarinet solo given its full due, this was a very fresh and lively account of an all too familiar favourite. In this partially undressed garb one experienced its 1920s jazz roots to the full and Gerstein’s swing rhythms seemed to swing just right. Everyone onstage looked as if they were enjoying themselves and the audience clearly appreciated the lightening of the mood.

Not that this lasted long, as Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin from 1924, the same year as the Rhapsody in Blue, is one of the darkest orchestral works ever written. With a scenario that involves several murders, pimping and an explicit sex scene, this is a work that still has the power to shock and caused outrage when it was first performed in Germany in 1926. The score is perhaps Bartók’s greatest, certainly his most ambitious, and in it he pushes every section of the orchestra to its limits. Make no mistake, this was a masterly performance, with Gaffigan drawing out rhythmic incisiveness and a sense of 'edgy' abandonment that was totally appropriate and riveting. Particular mention should go again to the clarinets and also the brass section who particularly seemed to relish being pushed to the limit. 

****1