The Seraphin Project was set up under the aegis of King’s College Cambridge to foster musical collaboration across the generations, and to mix student musicians with adult professionals.
Under the baton of their founder, Joy Lisney, the orchestra gave a textbook performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The stage at St John’s was only just big enough to accommodate the forces, but it made for an intense and focused sound, particularly from the woodwind whose accompaniment of the saxophone solo in the first movement was beautifully mellow yet solid, and redolent of Ravel in its textures.
Throughout, Lisney controlled dynamic and tempo well, contrasting the jolly almost-nautical romp in the first movement with the rusty, muted fanfares that open the second, and the rich lower woodwind above agitato low strings in the third. There was a touch of hesitancy in the co-ordination at the bell statement of the Dies Irae in this latter movement, but the pulse soon settled, allowing the flashes of volume from within the texture to shine through in their unexpected fashion.
Ferruccio Busoni is probably best known for his lush transcription of the Chaconne from Bach’s D-minor violin partita, a favourite show-off piece of pianists. He was, however, as well as being a noted pianist, a prolific composer. His C-major piano concerto is a rarely performed legend in the concert repertoire, largely on account of its virtuoso writing for piano and its vast scoring (that includes a six-part male chorus in the final movement). Busoni was trying to do for the concerto what Mahler and others had done for the symphony: adjust its scale and form for an audience with late-romantic sensibilities. Indeed, the chorus in the final movement, presumably in a nod to the fashion for orientalism, sings poetry by Adam Oehlenschläger describing Aladdin’s cave and closing with a prayer to Allah.
The orchestra made generally excellent work of the concerto, tackling its lengthy expositions with verve and a sense of scale, never allowing Busoni’s florid emotional gestures to spill over into too much abandon. During the carnival whirl of the second movement, they held their nerve, and this stood them in good stead for the near-chaotic busyness required in the fourth. The textures and dynamic throughout were deftly handled, from the solemn hymnodic feel of the first and fifth movements to the rumbling juggernaut of the third. There was a slight feeling of flabbiness in the last section of this interminable central movement, but the players rallied in time for the upbeat whimsy of the fourth. Karl Lutchmayer is an expert on Busoni’s works, and it showed in every note of his playing. It’s a challenging part (particularly the pyrotechnics needed for the fourth movement), and he did it full justice, approaching it with brio and a complete sense of the composer’s intention.
The concerto, though, is more magnificent than beautiful. All of the romantic tropes are there – build-ups, clever use of orchestral texture and pace – but it lacks a heart and, notwithstanding the quantity of melodic material flying around, it lacks the characteristic big tune that make romantic piano concerti popular. It is, above all, over-long and over-wrought. Five minutes into the first movement, for all the bravura piano runs and athletic leaps up and down the keyboard, it’s still stuck on a few simple chords. If ever a piece was calling to be broken up and performed piecemeal (the Italianate fourth movement, for example, would make a charming Respighi-like short tone poem, or the opening movement a pleasant enough Brahmsian overture) it is this one. Sadly, although there is pomp, it remains circumstantial.