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Benjamin Grosvenor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton, Barbican Hall, London


How often does it need to be said that a self-laudatory programme-note is a hostage to fortune? As a preamble to her new orchestral work ‘Night Ferry’, Anna Clyne pre-empted what critics might say by providing her own review.

This 20-minute work, she wrote, ‘is music of voyages, from stormy darkness to enchanted worlds… It is the music of the conjuror and setter of tides… exploring a winding path between explosive turbulent chaoticism [or chaos?] and chamber lyricism…’

She also indulged in a little orgy of success-by-association - with Riccardo Muti, who suggested she look to Schubert for inspiration (Schubert’s manic-depressive mood-swings would be the work’s governing principle); with Seamus Heaney whose ‘Elegy for Robert Lowell’ furnished her title, and with the medieval Persian poet Rumi, one of whose texts adorned her wall as she composed… Ah yes, she had also decided to ‘paint the music while writing it’, covering canvases on her wall with quotes from Coleridge and images from Doré: ‘The music would give direction to colour, texture, and form.’ Surely only a masterpiece could result? 

Would that it had. The piece opened with scurrying string-flights up and down the register suggesting high winds, punctured by stabbing brass and woodwind shrieks; the first of the promised mood-changes came in the form of a short harp interlude before we returned to the initial tempest. After fifteen minutes we got a stretch of Stravinskian wood-wind music (though without that composer’s magic).

Everyone played fortissimo, almost all the time; the whole thing was based on a five-note figure, ascending and descending - and that was it. We were left wondering what sort of painting might have emerged from this much-vaunted process of parallel creation: a ferocious daub in the style of Jackson Pollock?

The warm star-rating at the head of this review was earned through a courageous reading of Elgar’s sprawling First Symphony by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton, and by an absolutely stunning performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto by Benjamin Grosvenor, whose playing has now gained formidable authority.

In this early work, with its clear echoes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, one senses Britten beating his wings experimentally, and Grosvenor found exactly the right blend of fun, fury, and sweet seriousness. His articulation was crystalline, and his characterisation of each movement utterly convincing; a shame it wasn’t recorded.