Although this concert was ostensibly the second instalment of the Nielsen symphony cycle being performed by Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it was surely to hear Busoni’s extravagant and rarely heard Piano Concerto that most people were present. If not, they might have found themselves somewhat surprised by what came after the interval.
In addition to the Busoni concerto and Nielsen’s Second Symphony, the programme included a third piece of music from the same period, Rachmaninov’s Spring, a 15 minute cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Completed in 1902, shortly after the Second Piano Concerto, Spring sets a poem by Nikolay Nekrasov telling the story of a husband’s murderous feelings towards his unfaithful wife being abated by the sudden arrival of the Russian spring. Despite its colour and exuberance, Spring is not one of Rachmaninov’s most convincing compositions, at times sounding little more than a trial run for the far more sophisticated The Bells of 1913. Nevertheless, the work was given a spirited and radiant performance by baritone Igor Golovatenko and the BBC Symphony Chorus.
Nielsen’s Second Symphony (‘The Four Temperaments’) was also completed in 1902, its movements representing in turn choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic and sanguine. Oramo delivered the first movement with notable attack and propulsion, the music’s vibrancy and character strongly communicated, although the result occasionally sounded hard edged and aggressive as a result of the Barbican’s unflattering acoustic. By contrast, the performance was appropriately languid in the Scherzo and searching in the melancholic Andante, the woodwind playing in the latter particularly eloquent. A rollicking account of the finale brought the symphony to a close.
Busoni’s Piano Concerto, completed in 1904, is one of the most remarkable works in musical literature. Lasting 80 minutes and played without a break, the concerto’s five movements feature an extraordinary range of styles, culminating in a choral setting of the ‘Hymn to Allah’ from Adam Oehlenschläger’s 1805 play Aladdin. As well as showing the influence of composers such as Brahms, Chopin, Rossini and Tchaikovsky, the concerto also has passages that sound intriguingly prescient of the music of Sibelius, Shostakovich and even Vaughan Williams.
American pianist Garrick Ohlsson is an experienced exponent of the concerto and delivered a performance that was as notable for its stamina as it was for its energy, remarkably so in the riotous fourth movement, a composition so full of madcap invention that one can only assume Busoni intended it as some kind of musical joke. The playing of the orchestra under Oramo’s energetic direction was also unfailingly accurate and expressive, as was the singing of the male choir in the fifth movement. Given how infrequently the concerto is heard, it was a privilege to have been present at this performance.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.