BBC Symphony Orchestra. Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham. 11 March 2023. 4****. William Ruff


BBC Symphony Orchestra

Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham

March 11 2023


Review: William Ruff


A vibrant slice of early 20th century music-making

This BBC Symphony orchestra concert cut a 20-year slice through early 20th century music and revealed that only the most fearless gamblers of the time would have placed bets on where classical music was heading.

Gershwin’s An American in Paris made a good curtain-raiser with conductor Lionel Bringuier’s high-octane approach injecting plenty of pizzazz into the proceedings.  The composer knew and loved Paris well – but he suffered from homesickness.  Hence this Technicolor tone poem, full of Parisian vibrancy but with the blues thrown into the mix.  Gershwin uses a vast orchestra complete with an array of appropriately tuned taxi horns plus saxophones and a highly evocative muted trumpet.  The carefully crafted episodes come thick and fast – as do the glorious tunes.  It’s full of irresistible joie de vivre, the BBC players clearly relishing the challenge of shaking this most colourful of musical kaleidoscopes.

On the other side of the Atlantic the great Russia pianist/composer Rachmaninov was exiled in Switzerland and composing, amongst other things, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  The soloist was Clare Hammond, a pianist who began her distinguished concert career whilst at school in Nottingham.  The Rhapsody consists of 24 variations on Paganini’s famous theme, presenting it in a vast array of guises.  Even those who tend to reject Rachmaninov as being too lushly romantic often make an exception for this work.  Here the composer changes character in the blink of an eye: yes, there is some extravagantly lyrical writing but there is also a huge amount of musical intelligence, ingenuity and elegant wit.  Under Clare Hammond’s fingers each variation was sharply etched, characterful and infused with a vivid range of pianistic colour.  She was particularly good at drenching the canvas in darkly brooding sonorities (as in Variation 17) as well as injecting plenty of sparkling rhythmic fizz.  The audience loved it.

The concert’s second half contained a medical emergency, demonstrating the peril as well as the joy of live music-making.  This occurred in the middle of a concert hall rarity, music from Le Festin de l’Araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) by Albert Roussel, a ballet score about a spider who lures prey into her web.  It begins in a garden, represented by a sensual flute, before groups of insects arrive – the ants with military precision to a side-drum beat and the spider herself who traps a butterfly before dancing in triumph.  A mayfly follows but soon dies and the ballet ends with the mayfly’s funeral and the return to the calm of the garden.  It’s a score full of subtle detail requiring carefully nuanced solo playing as well as extreme sensitivity to orchestral colour on the part of the conductor.  Lionel Bringuier transformed his BBC players into natives of Roussel’s highly individual sound-world.

Finally came Ravel’s La Valse (The Waltz).  If the title suggests unalloyed glitter and charm, then think again.  This is a work which starts darkly, as if a ballroom is perceived through swirling mist, proceeds through images of sumptuous luxury, but then ends apocalyptically, as if all the ballgowns and chandeliers have been consumed by the horrors of the World War One trenches.  That may be going too far – but it’s certainly a piece that disturbs as well as it celebrates.  And it’s not a work which tolerates a half-hearted approach: Ravel expected a virtuoso orchestra on the edge of their seats throughout and prepared to go for broke at the end.  You could see from the faces of the BBC players that this was music-making akin to white-water rafting – and they clearly enjoyed the thrills as much as the audience. 

BBC Symphony Orchestra

Lionel Bringuier, conductor

Clare Hammond, piano

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