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Cresswell, Grieg, Rachmaninov: Andreas Haefliger (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra/David Porcelijn, Barbican Hall, 29 April, 2005 (CC)

Lyell Cresswell, a New Zealander with strong links to Scotland where he is now resident, was recipient of the 2003 Elgar Bursary (the first, in fact, of its kind). The Bursary uses royalties from Anthony Payne's elaboration of Elgar's Third Symphony sketches to support the work of mature composers (i.e. over 29).

Cresswel was born in 1944. This was the World Premiere of his piece, Ara Kopokopiko (the Maori word for labyrinth). Cresswell omits percussion, using other orchestrational means to simulate the percussion section's usual functions.To 'guide' his listeners, Cresswell provides four threads, which he labels A, B, C and D in his note to the work; each has a distinct character (although A and D are fairly obviously related). The form of the work is ABCDCABCDACADACBADBD, for what it is worth.

Which is, I have to report, not a lot. First, the positives. Cresswell has an acute ear for orchestration, not only the atmospheric open octaves of the opening (flutes and – I assume – deliberately awkward low writing for horns) or the Britten-like flute-violin unison lines (think Grimes), but also the way his penchant for abrupt juxtapositions of orchestral groups sounds unfailingly 'right'. However, even six minutes in I was asking how on earth this piece was going to last the BBC-predicted 22 minutes. The answer is fairly easy. As the work progressed, it became impossible to get the idea of a procession of not-too-demanding themes out of my mind (a sort of 'Endless Parade' but without the Birtwistle). And the 'ABCD' units could have come in almost any order.

More familiar ground with Grieg's Piano Concerto followed. Except it was not too familiar, thanks to Andreas Haefliger's imagination. Previously Haefliger had not over-impressed live due to a hesitant beginning to the Ravel G major Concerto (see: concert with LSO and interview). But this was like a new pianist. Haefliger seemed to be discovering the wonder of Grieg's war-horse for the first time – a critical cliché, I know, but an apt one here. From the easy fluency of the opening flourishes to the playful side of Grieg's persona this was pure delight. More, Haefliger seemed intent on emphasizing the Lisztian elements to the work, yet he kept them entirely within the orbit of Grieg. In the cadenza, Haefliger took real risks – and very exciting it was, too. He seemed almost to improvise the slow movement, and he positively reveled in the dance-like halling-rhythms of the finale. This was a whole new pianist, and I for one await further developments of this young artist. The BBCSO and Porcelijn accompanied sensitively throughout.

Finally, Rachmaninov's Third Symphony (A minor, Op. 44, 1935/6). Porcelijn very definitely has the measure of this piece, bringing out the raw scoring of parts of the main body of the first movement to memorable effect, and contrasting that with the refulgence of the echt-Rachmaninov lyric cello theme. The percussion-laden climax made its mark naturally. The slow movement included a fair amount of light while the interesting scoring of the Scherzo was highlighted (incidentally, the metric modulations between slow movement – scherzo and back again were perfectly judged). It was no small achievement that Porcelijn avoided any trace of bombast in the finale, closing in a blaze of colour.

We need to see more of Porcelijn in the UK, of that there now appears little doubt.

Colin Clarke

Further listening:

Cresswell: Anake etc. NMCD 077.

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