tue 25/06/2024

Osborne, BBC Philharmonic, Glassberg, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - energy and virtuosity | reviews, news & interviews

Osborne, BBC Philharmonic, Glassberg, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - energy and virtuosity

Osborne, BBC Philharmonic, Glassberg, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - energy and virtuosity

Music of masterful brilliance, masterfully captured

Hanging in the air… the conclusion of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, with Ben Glassberg conducting the BBC PhilharmonicBBC Philharmonic

The BBC Philharmonic ended its 2022-23 season in Manchester with a programme that might have been chosen as a showpiece for virtuosity.

There was orchestral virtuosity in the form of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, pianistic virtuosity in the shape of Steven Osborne playing Britten’s Piano Concerto, and a kind of compositional virtuosity in an eight-minute burst of Ethel Smyth – “On the Cliffs of Cornwall” from her opera, The Wreckers.

All this was delivered by conductor Ben Glassberg with an up-and-at-’em energy and determination that defied the heat and humidity of a summer evening in Manchester (yes, you read that correctly).

Dame Ethel’s piece was first: it’s 20th century music, but only just, and in many ways looks backward to Wagner. It’s a doom-laden seascape, and Glassberg and the musicians caught something of the ebb and flow of the waves through sheer depth of tone and roaring brass (there are some positions in the Bridgewater Hall where sitting directly opposite three orchestral trombones is rather like facing a firing squad). In Smyth’s soundworld, even the seagulls sing quite melodically.

The remainder of the music stemmed from the United States in the period just before, and during, the Second World War – in both cases written by emigré composers.

Steven Osborne with the BBC PhilharmonicFirst up was Britten (writing in 1938, though he gave his Piano Concerto a new third movement in 1945). Even with a desk in each section off the strings’ full complement, there was still plenty for the soloist to contend with, but Osborne (pictured leftwas never outdone in the non-stop hammer-and-tongs pianism of the opening Toccata, and he and Glassberg made thrilling stuff of the accelerando that precedes the cadenza. That itself came as a kind of relief, and the change to slower tempo after it was not just welcome but genuinely touching – Britten knew how to go deeper than mere parody. The final March, likewise, though mocking pretensions of every kind and treated with appropriate musical sarcasm by both Osborne and Glassberg, gained intensity from those interludes that capture misery as few other pieces of the pre-1939 era do.

The third movement, in its 1945 form, is an Impromptu, almost Satie-like in its eerie chord progression, and was rendered in beautifully introspective style by the piano before the orchestra gave it bigger shoes to wear (which Osborne mirrored fearlessly).

There’s a common factor to this work and to the Rachmaninov: each has a Waltz as its second movement, and in each case there’s more than a whiff of the spectral, smoke-laden visions of Ravel’s 1920 test-to-destruction, La Valse. Britten’s soon turns to mickey-taking and gentle subversion, but Rachmaninov, writing in 1940 and near the end of his life, makes his more an exploration of melancholy and seriousness than horror.

In all the brilliance of his writing, including a fair helping of musical irony and self-quotation, Ben Glassberg’s reading held out the contrasts of tenderness and warmth the Symphonic Dances offer, highlighting the wistful leader’s solo from Yuri Torchinsky in that Waltz movement and the violas’ brief sojourn in the limelight as the music leads to a reprise of its opening.

The language of the Paganini Rhapsody, with a tighter, less prolix kind of melody than in earlier crowd-pleasing works, is never far away as the finale gets into a helter-skelter every bit as incisive and edgy as the Britten had been. Glassberg reminded us of the melancholy – and even, at one point, mystery, as the music seems to start all over again from complete silence – that underlies all the surface gloss. Rachmaninov signs off, for all his positive affirmations, with the sound of a gong left hanging in the air: a masterstroke, masterfully captured.

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