A sense of what might have been pervaded this concert by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Not only was conductor Joshua Weilerstein indisposed (due to illness), but so too was the soloist for Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, Jonathan Biss (due to an accident). Polish conductor Michał Nesterowicz and pianist Steven Osborne stepped into their shoes at short notice.
It is always a pleasure to see and hear Osborne on the concert platform, and he is no stranger to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5.The work’s complexity and contradictions are well within his range and experience. Yet one felt that this concerto is not one of Osborne’s top favourites. Either that or rehearsal time was limited. The opening Allegro skipped along happily enough, although the tempo felt rushed at times, and the orchestra acted more as a supporter of the solo part than as a distinct character in the musical dialogue. The second movement Adagio was appropriately calm and reflective, with Osborne providing some intensely beautiful playing. The final Rondo romped along nicely enough, but again, the piano and orchestra seemed unsure of each other. The contrast with Osborne’s idiosyncratic and confident encore – the second movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata – could not have been greater.
Nesterowicz – who made his BBC SO debut in this concert – only had a couple of days to learn and practice Christopher Rouse’s Prospero’s Rooms, so its UK premiere was more muted than it might otherwise have been. The work is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death and Leonid Andreyev’s play The Black Maskers. In the short story, Prince Prospero summons his cronies to his castle to revel while the plague ravages the countryside. At the end of a masquerade ball the red death appears and claims the lives of the prince and his courtiers. Rouse had originally intended to compose an opera, but eventually settled for a more modest orchestral overture. Prospero’s Rooms focuses on the colours of the six rooms through which the revellers pass before ending up in the final black chamber, with its red stained glass window. As one would expect from the BBC SO, the playing was top notch, and Nesterowicz seemed assured in his direction of the large forces ranged in front of him. But the whole experience lacked drama and suspense, and the audience’s reception was appreciative but lukewarm.
There was nothing tentative about the BBC SO’s rendition of Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. The happy coincidence of the orchestra’s long familiarity with the work and Nesterowicz’ Polish sensibility forged an interpretation that played up the roughness of Lutosławski’s folk themes and amply displayed the composer’s virtuosic instrumentation. Nesterowicz’ direction focused on delineating the structure of the concerto, with its Classical symmetry and Baroque concertante and dance-themed sections. Members of the BBC SO, meanwhile, were given a fairly free rein to do what they do best, which is to play to an extremely high standard. The opening Intrada was witty and perfectly poised, while the ensuing Capriccio turned into an airy, witty scherzo. The final Passacaglia, Toccata and Chorale was as brilliant and thrilling as one would expect. No one orchestral section stood out more than another, but the brass and percussion players won deserved plaudits from an enthusiastic audience.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.