'The piece is a dialogue,' said Harrison Birtwistle in a pre-concert interview regarding the premiere of his new piano concerto Responses: sweet disorder and the carefully careless, adding that he didn’t know ‘how it will speak’.
On a first hearing, the answer was not very intelligibly until its final five minutes: until he relaxed into emphatic eloquence he was speaking in his typically dense, spiky, and hocketing idiom, largely to himself.
Yet the form was surprisingly traditional, with nineteenth-century concerto gestures and the piano forcefully in the lead. And with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at the keyboard, it got the best possible airing: no pianist alive can rival this French maestro as an advocate for writing of this post-Messiaen kind. Aimard brought out its variation-style repetitions with commanding clarity, while Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic provided the requisite accompanying virtuosity.
The rest of this programme was wall-to-wall classics. Aimard brought his customary brilliance to Oiseaux exotiques, the bird-call extravaganza by Olivier Messiaen to whom Aimard had been an adoptive son. Jurowski and co realised the super–bright textures of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments in its original 1920 version, and wound up with an account of his Orpheus which honoured that sublime work’s gentle grace.