Contemporary music is frequently seen as abstract and over-intellectualised, so it is refreshing to find a composer keen to respond artistically to the actualités of the modern world, especially when such events have the power to shock. Tansy Davies has now drawn on the material in her opera Between Worlds (premièred three years ago by ENO) to create a four-movement orchestral suite entitled What Did We See? In this performance by the BBC Philharmonic under its Principal Guest Conductor Ben Gernon the twenty-minute work was receiving its world première. The event that so fascinated Davies was, of course, 9/11.

Paul Lewis
© Kaupo Kikkas

Laudable though the conception is, it is a huge challenge to encompass musically the dimensions of what happened, not least at the human level. The prevailing mood in the suite is unsettling, disorienting in its angularity and rhythmic uncertainties, though it has many moments of atmospheric power, especially the use of the full orchestra to depict the first plane striking the North Tower. But the music itself is generic and could represent any number of natural and man-made disasters. Without the descriptions provided in the programme-book it was not easy making a direct connection with the ideas Davies wished to explore. Gernon and his orchestra gave full expression to the brooding intensity of the piece.

Beethoven left us only five piano concertos. He did sketch a sixth in D major (what an interesting pairing that would have made in this concert) in 1815, but soon abandoned the project. He had already taken the piano concerto as far as he could; indeed, the Hammerklavier Sonata, completed just three years later in 1818, shows why orchestral support had by then become surplus to requirements.

Paul Lewis was the soloist in the E flat concerto: This was very much Beethoven with a human face, the composer’s gruffness and revolutionary ardour subsumed under a coat of finely-woven cloth resplendent in all its neat stitching. Lewis seemed to respond most strikingly to the lyrical elements and the inward qualities he found in the central Adagio in which the dynamic shadings and sensitive interplay with the woodwind soloists stood out. But both the opening movement and the finale suffered from a tendency to sacrifice majesty and grandeur for a skipping vitality which eschewed all opportunities for extra weight and emphasis. At just 37 minutes this was a reading that had a young man’s vigour stamped all over it. Gernon matched his soloist in tempo and mood but went further in capturing the spirit of the time. This concerto was written during preparations for war between Austria and Napoleonic France, and the sketches for the first movement were peppered with exclamations of belligerent excitement – “Song of triumph for battle! Attack! Victory!” And again and again during that opening movement Gernon picked out the martial flourishes in trumpets and horns.

Brahms wasn’t exactly a practical joker but he knew how to tease. He referred to the scherzo of his Second Piano Concerto (written just a few years after his Second Symphony) as “a tiny, tiny wisp” needed to counter-balance the “feeble-mindedness” of the first movement. When he sent his publisher Simrock his new D major symphony he warned of its essential melancholy, commenting: “I have never yet written something quite so tragic…the score needs to appear edged in black.”

Brahms was not being entirely tongue-in-cheek: even though over long stretches the music seems bathed in southern sunshine, the dark clouds are not completely kept at bay, and Gernon allowed the doleful trombones to make their presence keenly felt early on in the opening Allegro non troppo. This detail is itself a key to understanding how this symphony works: it is imbued with heady Romantic spirit that creates light and shade but also with a sense of yearning for that which can never be achieved. This requires a degree of flexibility in the phrasing and more than just a hint of rubato. If the beat is consistently too metric, as it was here, the emphasis shifts unduly to the primary colours. Gernon pushed on repeatedly, despite giving us the exposition repeat in the first movement, and it was all over in under 40 minutes. Bracing it certainly was, but ultimately one-dimensional.

I found it instructive that in a programme-book interview Gernon shies away from historically informed performance and favours what he calls “a very Romantic reading” in Brahms. His heart certainly seemed to be in the right place, but currently the BBC Philharmonic do not have the collective heft in the strings to deliver those well-springs of dark, coiled energy that make performances of the symphonies not just adequate but ideal. Given that Gernon and the orchestra are still growing in their closer musical partnership, it is to be hoped that attention can be devoted to developing more depth to the sound.