Kirill Gerstein’s proposal was to combine Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. If anyone could make it work, it was him, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under James Gaffigan created an inspired context, beginning with Hermann’s Psycho Suite and ending with Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin.
Psycho Suite (1960) made a brilliant scene-setter, a sort of after-party where 1940s New York and the Second Viennese School undergo a remix. Though it opens with jagged chords, they’re soon absorbed into a sassy moto perpetuo which has more than a hint of Bernstein; it’s only after the glassily still prelude to the murder that Vienna rises in the notorious ‘stabbing’ violins, here a hoarse, visceral barking, before the suite unwinds into eerie tone rows.
Schoenberg and Gershwin make odd bed-fellows, even if they did become tennis partners in Los Angeles in the 1940s. One cannot help thinking of Schoenberg’s choleric dismissal of Bartók for trying ‘to apply to the ideas of popular music, which are by nature primitive, a technique that is only appropriate to a more evolved type of thought.’
I doubt he could have resisted this crackling performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody, in Ferde Grofé’s spartan 1926 orchestration, with just five strings. The long, sleazy clarinet slide (done to perfection by Richard Hosford) still has the power to provoke in a concert hall, while sizzling muted trumpet and trombone solos raised the temperature to match Gerstein’s fiery delivery.
Would you guess the Russian had trained in jazz at Berklee? It’s certainly hard not to be aware of a creative mind interrogating the score as he performs, absorbing and transforming it into apparently spontaneous expression. The rhythmic subtlety and control of tone and voicing are exceptional, yet he can vamp with piano-bar abandon. Time and again it felt improvised, whether in the confiding solo with horn, the cadenza leading to the ‘big tune’, which came out surprisingly naked with these forces, or when he launched into the fast patter of repeated notes as if he’d just had the idea. Gone was over-dressed orchestral swagger or glossy, solo grand-standing; this was a riveting chamber dialogue which gathered the subversive momentum of an in-joke shared.
From his letters, one always thinks of Schoenberg in a scowling temper during his late years in California, embattled, disappointed by both audiences and colleagues. Yet the concerto speaks both of a love affair with tradition, and even an unconscious absorption of his musical environment. From Gerstein’s relaxed opening salvo, here was a performance in which the Californian sunshine seemed to have slunk in between the bar-lines. This was warm, supple, free but with brilliantly tight-knit ensemble and sparky rhythm. Piano and xylophone rattled in crystalline unison in the molto allegro, while Gaffigan drew a funky sting from the bass line. After the gritty gravity of the Adagio, Gerstein conjured a truly ‘giocoso’ dance of liquescent grace.
The Miraculous Mandarin, Bartók’s portrait of the urban under-belly as terrifying as anything in Psycho, ended the concert under Gaffigan’s energetic direction with phantasmagoric intensity. Helen Wallace
BBC Symphony Orchestra plays The Sound of Chaplin, Barbican 30 November 7.30pm