CLASSICAL MUSIC / Take a hundred players, mix well: Showpieces without a soloist, symphonies in all but name, or a feast of new ideas? Bayan Northcott explores concertos for orchestra

Fifty years ago this month, that great musical Maecenas and director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky, unwittingly touched off a tradition. Recently laid low by the death of his first wife, he had begun commissioning pieces in her memory. Already he had advanced a fee for the young Benjamin Britten's projected Peter Grimes. Now he was confidentially advised by the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti and the conductor Fritz Reiner that their eminent compatriot, Bela Bartok, was in difficulties. On 4 May 1943 Koussevitzky signed with typical flamboyance a letter offering the composer dollars 1,000 towards a new work for orchestra.

In fact, Bartok was dying. In the two and a half years since the darkening European situation had forced him at 59 to emigrate to the United States, he had just about supported himself by giving occasional concerts and working on the folk-song collection at Columbia University. But his terrible sadness for his native land had precluded any creative work, and by 1943 he was already suffering from the fevers of undiagnosed leukaemia. Koussevitzky's initial down-payment at least helped towards a summer holiday in upstate New York, where he felt briefly better enough by August to resume composing. He had often worked fast and in this instance may already have found a starting point in sketches for an uncompleted ballet. All the same, his finishing of a five-movement score for full orchestra lasting 40 minutes in just two months suggests the urgency of a composer who knew that his time was short.

A composer also palpably concerned to synthesise on the broadest scale the divergencies of his entire 40-year career. Inimitable frissons of Bartokian night music frame the central slow movement, a blackly jagged elegy of tragic weight. The sonata-form first movement is heralded by a vastly mysterious introduction and throws up brazen flights of neo-Baroque counterpoint. The finale, constructed on an equally capacious plan, encompasses within its headlong sweep of manic folk-fiddling episodes that vary from barnyard humour to aching nostalgia. Why, after a lifetime of suites, rhapsodies and concertos, was Bartok still reluctant to acknowledge the largest concert score of his maturity as a symphony? Maybe he considered the intermezzo-like second and fourth movements lacked symphonic decorum: the one a chain of chattering duets, the other a bucolic plaint interrupted by a savage satire on Shostakovich. Maybe he felt the piece to be too confessional. With his emotional guards down and the sophisticated European audiences who had admired his gritty constructivism between the wars seemingly lost for ever, he certainly found himself writing with a renewed directness. Whatever the reasons - and noting the score's tendency to spotlight varying groups of instruments - he plumped instead for the title Concerto for Orchestra.

He was not the first to use it. That convivial young anti-romantic, Paul Hindemith, had already sought to counter the egomania of the 19th-century solo concerto tradition by modernising the pre-classical concerto grosso, and his brisk 15-minute Concerto for Orchestra of 1925 duly cross-cut chunky tuttis with ornate episodes for concertino groups of soloists - like some augmented latterday Brandenburg Concerto. Too rarely revived, the piece still retains enough vitality and character to make a tonic concert opener, and it inspired imitations in its own time: a somewhat lumpen Concerto for Orchestra (1934) by the Italian Goffredo Petrassi - who was subsequently to add seven more works to the genre - and a vigorous, if predictable, Hungarian-Baroque example (1940) by Bartok's old folkloristic comrade-in-arms, Zoltan Kodaly. Still, the title might have lapsed with the waning of the neo-classical ideal, but for the astounding success of Bartok's own Concerto.

He was just well enough to acknowledge the excited reception of its New York premiere in December 1944 by Koussevitzky and his Boston players, 10 months before his death. Had he hung on a few years longer, he would have seen the work universally accepted as a modern classic, even as a popular repertory piece, and certainly as a creative challenge. Slowly elaborating his own Concerto for Orchestra between 1950 and 1954, Witold Lutoslawski was compelled under the doctrine of Socialist Realism in Stalinist Poland to go back to the kind of raw folk-tunes and traditional schemes that Bartok had long since absorbed and elaborated into his own boldly original technique. Yet the final result still contrived to suggest a step beyond Bartok to the extent that its idiosyncratic overall form seemed to flow the more completely from the contrasts and balances of the orchestral line-up itself.

In the first two movements of the 1963 Concerto for Orchestra he dedicated to Britten, Michael Tippett went further still, more or less abandoning received symphonic procedures. Instead, the orchestra was broken down into small ensembles - nine combinations of wind and percussion in the first movement; three layerings of strings in the second - and the forms simply built up out of their kaleidoscopic shuffling and superimposition (though Tippett rather flunked the possibility of a still more elaborate superimposing of winds, percussion and strings for his finale). Two years later, Roberto Gerhard forsook even Tippett's residually thematic concept in a coruscating Concerto for Orchestra projecting an abstract interplay of mobility and stasis, gesture and texture.

Yet it was left to Elliott Carter in his Concerto for Orchestra of 1969 to exploit the possibility of deriving a total form from a specific arrangement of the players: dividing the orchestra into four 'concertino packs' of mixed instruments and swirling the characteristic colours and configurations of each in and out of focus against the other three in a 20-minute vortex of sound. Meanwhile Thea Musgrave had opened up quite another, quasi-theatrical approach in her 1967 Concerto for Orchestra by instructing certain players to stand up in rebellion against the conductor and pursue their own tempi. Different again was the terse Concerto for Orchestra with which the veteran American, Roger Sessions, crowned his career in 1981, being conceived for the style of a particular orchestra - once more the Boston SO, which the composer had loved for 60 years.

If the notion of the Concerto for Orchestra as it has developed since Bartok were merely a negative one - a catch-all term for a large orchestral showpiece that is neither quite a concerto nor a symphony nor yet a symphonic poem - it would scarcely have generated so outstanding a sequence of works, many of them turning-points in the outputs of their respective composers. A few, perhaps, have fallen short. Richard Rodney Bennett's festive and well-made contribution of 1973 - another Britten tribute - has not stood out in his oeuvre while Oliver Knussen seems to regard his very early example as a youthful indiscretion, though sprightly memories persist from the 1970 premiere of its uproarious Charleston-style finale.

Yet if Bartok's Concerto remains by far the most popular - a standing demonstration against all the shifting fashions over the last 50 years of how to write approachably without sacrificing musical substance - at least one of its younger admirers now seems in the process of creating a whole cycle. Robin Holloway's vast, brash First Concerto for Orchestra (1969) may have been in the nature of a graduation piece, but his Second Concerto (1979) triumphantly revived the Ivesian quotation-collage idea in an infinitely more complex overall form than Ives ever achieved. Now he is at work on a Third Concerto for the LSO, some pages of which are said to total a formidable 80 staves. But then, if one takes all the potential solo and group permutations of the virtuoso modern 100-piece orchestra as a starting-point, the possibilities are presumably endless . . .

The Philharmonia plays Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Wednesday 7.30pm, Royal Festival Hall (071-928 8800)

Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?