The demise of the symphony is proclaimed at regular intervals, yet the genre is constantly enriched by new generations of composers.
The demise of the symphony is proclaimed at regular intervals, yet the genre is constantly enriched by new generations of composers. John Casken is the latest to succumb to temptation, with a BBC commission subtitled Broken Consort, a reference to the inclusion of a "Gypsy ensemble", consisting of cimbalom, piano accordion, electric violin and mandolin. This, together with an array of Thai gongs and cowbells in the large percussion section, gives the piece an irresistibly tangy, metallic quality, slicing through traditional orchestral textures.
Symphony "Broken Consort" is cast in two substantial movements. In the first, the Romany group gradually coaxes the rest of the players into an energetic dance. The start of the following movement finds the orchestra in command in weighty statements of towering emotional power. The material accelerates into a scherzo-like passage, edging towards the dance of the previous movement. After a thunderous climax, the work concludes calmly, with a wistful glance back to the start of the second movement and an echo of the opening, shimmering Thai gongs.
The score is a considerable achievement, its tendency towards sweeping, passionate expressiveness neatly offset by the zapping, piquant sonorities of the gypsy band. A former pupil of Lutoslawski, Casken is able to stamp the Eastern European sounds with authenticity, and in both movements he brilliantly pulls off the difficult task of writing genuinely fast music. The BBC players in the "Gypsy consort" were impressively virtuosic, and the whole orchestra seemed to have the score so well under their fingers that this world premiere was a genuine performance.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard graced Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with naturally thoughtful and sensitive playing. His introverted style might have clashed with Gianandrea Noseda's more physical presence on the podium, yet the two approaches meshed, bringing out the aesthetic and athletic qualities in the piece. Aimard's rapt rendering of the central Adagio's opening solo was blessed by pure, childlike simplicity, while the jazzy Presto Finale bounced along in a syncopated flurry.
After the interval, the complete ballet music to Stravinsky's The Firebird generated more top-flight orchestral playing. Noseda's painterly sensibility resulted in an admirably detailed reading. However, with a first half lasting an hour and a quarter, this Prom concert was almost too much of a good thing - despite Aimard's glorious playing, the programme would arguably have been more digestible, and just as impressive, with only the Casken and Stravinsky works.
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