thu 25/07/2024

Aimard, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Aimard, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Aimard, LPO, Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall

Birtwistle’s new Piano Concerto dazzles, but that's only one course in an orchestral feast

Harrison Birtwistle explains, Pierre-Laurent Aimard listensAstrid Ackermann

In words and music Harrison Birtwistle isn’t always as gruff as he’s been painted. Interviewed over the summer during one of his 80th birthday Prom concerts, the composer tossed off enough humorous remarks to suggest that a new career could almost beckon as a stand-up comedian touring the northern clubs.

A lightness of touch, even bonhomie, was also apparent in the UK premiere of his wondrous Piano Concerto, unveiled last night in the course of the kind of head-expanding concert that regularly puts Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra ahead of its local competition. 

Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully careless – the title itself brings no suggestion of the furrowed brow, unlike, say, Fractal Pulses or Algorithm 5. The ear-tickling delights kept coming over the 25-minute spread: a leaping piano; airy textures; jiggling, almost jazzy rhythms; cicada percussion; comical brass with wah-wah mutes. And the work’s subtitle, borrowed from an essay by the architect Robert Maxwell, gets it just about right. There might seem disorder and carelessness here; but the music’s usually sweet and always careful. 

At every turn of the kaleidoscope the LPO remained on the top of its top form

Some of its vivacity comes from Birtwistle’s use of the hocket, the hiccupping medieval technique where pauses are scattered as material progress among interwoven parts. This is partly the source, too, of the work’s clear textures. Getting the piano heard against the orchestra was one of the composer’s main concerns, though if Pierre-Laurent Aimard is at the keys, as he was here, you’re always going to notice his crystalline brilliance and intellectual command. Crunched chords, prancing arabesques, jumping-jack rhythms: what wasn’t there to love?

Then there was the orchestra. Coming on stage to take his bows, Birtwistle actually saluted them before he turned to his soloist. At every turn of the kaleidoscope the LPO remained on the top of its top form. Fully prepared and rehearsed by Jurowski, they generated an almost sensuous sheen as pianist and ensemble ducked and wove in a piece that for all its occasional clamour or blurts from the tuba still felt chamber-sized. I found it completely intoxicating. 

Jurowski showed his mettle as well in the works chosen to surround the concert’s prize exhibit. We started with Stravinsky’s pocket masterpiece in the mosaic manner, Symphonies of Wind Instruments, but not in the more familiar 1945 revision. Here we heard the original article of 1920, less pungent, more austere, though a grave kind of warmth still rose from its forces, including Paul Richards’ rare alto clarinet. 

After the interval, came the mosaic aviary of Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques. I’ve heard this divine piece given by numerous ensembles in numerous halls, but never with the diamond precision and gaudy lustre encountered here. Clarity was obviously aided by spreading each instrumental entity – piano, winds, solo clarinets, percussion – across the wide stage. The RFH acoustic, dry as a parched throat, probably chipped in. But the key factor surely was the players’ virtuosity, with every sound bright and tight. Aimard, of course, playing from memory, delivered his fiendishly complex birdsong tapestry with the ease of someone tossing off the Beer Barrel Polka.

Even more excitement after that would have been bad for our health. So we had Stravinsky’s 1947 Orpheus instead: a ballet score whose cool gaze appears diametrically opposed to the violence embedded in its Greek myth. Possibly after the Second World War Stravinsky thought enough was enough. As a small corrective measure, or possibly some house mistake, the LPO suddenly became bathed in red light as Orpheus, in our minds’ eye, met his end at the hands of the Bacchantes’ teeth. But it didn’t much matter: whatever the hue, Jurowski’s scrupulous weighing of textures and shaping of phrases gave enough satisfaction. And the ballet’s apotheosis, grave but modest, finally gave this crackerjack concert the one ingredient so far missed: beauty quiet, tender and uplifting. 

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