Opera + Classical Music Reviews

BBC SO/Gabel @ Barbican Hall, London

23 February 2014

The BBC Symphony Orchestra returned to the Barbican Hall for another concert in its exploration of French works and of double-piano concertos. This time they brought with them conductor Fabien Gabel and the UK premiere of Bruno Mantovani’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra.

Aged just 40, Mantovani is a prolific composer, with several large-scale works already to his credit. This concerto was written for pianists François-Frédéric Guy and Varduhi Yeritsyan and first performed in Porto in 2011. The original soloists re-grouped for this performance, with the composer also in attendance. Following on from other works for multiple soloists, Mantovani has spoken of his interest in confrontation between pairs or groups of instruments, and the orchestral ‘symphonic mass’. This, he explains, offers the composer ‘infinite sound-perspective options’.

The concerto certainly bristled with contrasting sonorities and shifting balances between keyboards and orchestra. At times, both pianos struggled to get a hearing; at others, the soloists commanded attention with rhythmically compelling and technically demanding passages. The orchestral writing, too, was highly complex, although there was a sense of déju vu in the clattering drum kit and rasping trumpets that feature so prominently in big contemporary pieces. And for all its cleverness, the concerto lacked a clear sense of direction. Musical sections proceeded without much connection or development, and the whole work seemed to last longer than its 25 minutes.

The music of Ernest Chausson is seldom played in this country, and his symphonic poem Soir de fête is almost unknown. This is a pity, as it is a beautiful, deftly-written work that prefigures in name and nuance the Fêtes of Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes, which followed it after the interval. Rather than portraying a raucous evening festival, the poem evokes the sounds and atmosphere of a calm night with the noise of a crowd in the distance. Fabien Gabel elicited some superb playing from the BBC SO, and demonstrated a sure knowledge and sensitive reading of the score.

Those same qualities of intelligence, sympathy and control characterised Gabel’s handling of Debussy’s Nocturnes. The rich orchestral palette of the opening Nuages was particularly well blended, with some of the woodwind writing revealingly brought to the fore. Gabel resisted the temptation to speed up the central Fêtes, which had the added advantage of offering closer comparison with Chausson’s take on the same theme. In the final Sirènes the conductor and orchestra captured something of the seascape of that movement. However, the reduced forces of female voices from the BBC Singers (just 16 of them) made for a sinewy rather than sensual sound against such a large orchestra.

The concert rounded off somewhat incongruously with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 in F major. Although the programme notes attempted to find common ground with Mantovani’s ‘collision of energies’ and the ‘explosive opening’ of Beethoven’s Eighth, Gabel wisely handled the symphony for what it is – a finely-crafted early Romantic work. There was plenty of energy in his interpretation, but this was never at the expense of the composer’s lightness of touch, warmth and sprightly optimism. Once again, Gabel commanded the orchestra with a firm but sensitive touch, and one expects to hear more of him in the future.

Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk.

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BBC SO / Gabel @ Barbican Hall, London
BBC SO/Gabel @ Barbican Hall, London