Kenneth Hesketh's Graven Image – premiered at this Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Prom – may play with ideas connected with both those words, but ultimately this music is all about the aural image. Like so much contemporary music, it is composed vertically – meaning that it is essentially textural, not melodic, interest that carries it forward.
Whatever happened to melody? It has become so generic, so incidental. Hesketh's melodies are figurative rather than emotive; they have no identity; they serve only as binding agents. He has a great pair of ears and considerable skills as an orchestrator, but Graven Image is just as it says on the tin – and it isn't enough.
The speculative opening of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto already is. There's a world contained in the soloist's opening statement – the nature of the melody, the choice of register, the idea itself – that when the orchestra enters in a distant key, a parallel universe is established. Paul Lewis is a gifted pianist, but for all the clean, distilled quality of his playing, the feeling was of Beethoven being reined in. His performance was clear-sighted, not visionary.
Even moments where the hands were wide apart failed to convey a sense of spatial intrigue; the seismic first-movement cadenza brought a classical restraint that Beethoven had long since exploded. And Vasily Petrenko concurred, turning the slow movement's forbidding orchestral declamations into topiary. The parallel universe was no more; this Beethoven was not a mystical experience.
Then Petrenko returned to his roots and the atmosphere changed. He wasn't going to let us forget that Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances are, well, dances. The RLPO were, in every sense, on their toes. And the mysticism so lacking in the Beethoven was potent here. As the alto-sax melody of the first dance spread its melancholia to the strings, the emergence of bass clarinet from the pianissimo brought the first glimpse of the composer's demons. And Petrenko even had them dancing to the "Dies irae" in this exciting finale.
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