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S & H Prom Review

PROM 10: Joe Duddell Première, Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Colin Currie (percussion), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop, RAH, 25th July 2003 (MB)


In an interview published on Seen & Heard, Joe Duddell said that he wanted to compose a concerto that reflected the ‘more lyrical side of percussion.’ Ruby goes well beyond that, since it is not only the percussion that displays a lyricism but the orchestration also. What one might have imagined to have been a proto-anarchic approach to a work of this nature (especially from such a young composer with a relatively radical classical background) proves entirely counter to it; recent concertos by James MacMillan and Joseph Schwantner are certainly not models to which Duddell has turned, both of which are as much ‘visual’ concertos as they are ‘aural’ ones, conceptually dramatic works rather than inherently poetic ones.

Neither is Duddell’s concerto as radically virtuosic as those by MacMillan and Schwantner (there is conspicuously less writing for four or more mallets, for example), even if in structure it closely resembles the latter’s. Schwantner conservatively gave his concerto’s movements linguistic parameters – ‘Con forza’, ‘Misterioso’ and ‘Ritmico con brio’ – which at least gave some indication to the work’s wider synthesis, but Duddell, as with the titles he gives his works – which are largely personal attributions – simply locates a measure of time (and a suggestive one, rather than an absolute one) as an indication to the work’s structure.

Yet, Ruby works because its aspirations are so nearly fully achieved. Duddell has written of the contrasting of un-tuned and tuned percussion and how the rhythmic and kaleidoscopic properties of the former work collaboratively with the melodic and harmonic possibilities of the latter in allowing the soloist to interact with the colours of the orchestra. This is the antithesis of many percussion concertos and the epiphany of Duddell’s work is that percussion can be spontaneously lyrical and poetic. This works marvellously in the central movement – where the orchestral string textures mirror the diaphanous soundscape of Skempton’s Lento – and the haunting marimba lines shadow the sombre pulsing of double basses and ‘cellos. It also works beautifully in the fast third movement where the percussion (amid some beautifully written parts for the vibraphone) works with the solo trumpet, flute and double bass to form a mini ‘concerto grosso’, each instrument mirroring the plangency of the percussionist. If the music is usually doleful rather than blindingly aggressive it always seems to have a musical purpose behind its composition, the only possible exception being a drum-kit solo with orchestra near the beginning of the final movement which seemed oddly out of place.

Colin Currie was an expert soloist, with Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra providing a peerless accompaniment.

Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra framed Duddell’s concerto and both works were given utterly gripping interpretations by the American conductor Marin Alsop. She is that rarity in Tchaikovsky – a conductor who knows exactly how to pace these complex symphonic fantasies. Francesca, as with Romeo and Juliet, can seem interminable at the wrong tempo (listen to Celibidache, just after the war, with the Berlin Philharmonic to hear just how wrong a performance of Romeo can sound, for example) yet Ms Alsop took us on this Dantean journey, if not briskly, then certainly dramatically. Like the Japanese conductor Takashi Asahina, Ms Alsop achieves the broadest orchestral sonority from the bottom up – in other-words, from the lower strings - and the Bournemouth Symphony orchestra’s ‘cellos and double basses provided the bedrock on which this thrillingly menacing sound was developed. The orchestra’s brass – especially the horns – were often less than secure but the woodwind playing was beautifully responsive throughout, especially in their depiction of the howling of the souls of the damned, and Francesca’s reappearance brought forth an evocative, almost over-tender clarinet solo from Kevin Banks.

Her sense of pacing paid off perfectly in the work’s conclusion, so often a calamitous ritual of hysteria. The storm’s remorseless return, overshadowing everything before it, gripped precisely because Ms Alsop didn’t accelerate her tempi, the orchestral ferocity more shattering because of the unambivalent way in which she held back, in ritardando, to allow the polyphony of the conclusion to emerge with the wound up tension it should, but so infrequently does. This was a simply spellbinding performance.

Almost as persuasive was her interpretation of Bartók’s great Concerto for Orchestra. With an American approach, reminiscent of Bernstein’s and Maazel’s before her, Ms Alsop took a ripely romantic view of this work which, speciously or otherwise, depended on a warmth of orchestral sonority you don’t often hear in central European interpretations. Even the Bournemouth brass, so brittle, and often frail, in the Tchaikovsky, here played with a near-precision that suggested the roughness had all but been smoothed out, and the rugged Hungarian-ness disseminated, even in the folk dances, to something more trans-Atlantic in its scale.

It is a viable approach, although only partly. The ‘Giuoco delle coppie’ suffered slightly from being too clipped, the side drum being marginally rhythmically understated and her tempo a questionable scherzo rather than a genuine one. In contrast, her conducting of the ‘Elegia’ was profoundly dark, often impassioned and fully aware of the subtleties of the composer’s impressionistic writing. The ‘Finale’ brought with it a wondrous stillness to the tranquillo section, but perhaps an over use of rubato made the perpetuum mobile sections less thrilling than they might have been. Yet, this was a performance which had an exceptionally wide emotional and expressive range, less fierce and biting than many might be used to, but benefiting from an imagistic use of colouring and atmosphere that was often a revelation.

It was a performance which amply demonstrated the charisma of this conductor, and the progressive (and positive) effect she has had on the Bournemouth orchestra. It is a partnership I wish we could hear more of in London, a city that, despite having its own orchestral excellence, seems to lack anything approaching a vibrant partnership on this scale.

Marc Bridle



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