Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
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In the hush of the concert hall, as Saturday night in Glasgow beeps and bustles just outside the doors, Sally Beamish’s third piano concerto manages to so evocatively conjure the underlying anxiety and jittery disconnection of city living that, although followed by two much-loved works from heavyweight composers, it’s Beamish’s 23 minutes that feel most significant.
Receiving its European premiere this week as part of Beethoven/5, a five-year series of commissions, imagined by self-professed Beethoven obsessive Jonathan Biss, in which different composers are approached to write a piano concerto inspired by one of Beethoven’s five, City Stanzas reminds us, with a quiet confidence, of the excitement (and importance) of music as response to the human condition.
It helps, of course, having the exceptional and engaging Biss as soloist. In the quietly heartbreaking stand-out second movement, Requiem - a response to the recent death of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies - his poetic, beautifully phrased solo becomes one man’s solitary thoughts against a doom-laden backdrop of eerie timpani and bass glissandi, conjuring distant traffic heard from behind a lonely window as a bass clarinet chips in with dark, unwanted thoughts. In the third movement, returning to the irritable chaos of the aural cityscape, Biss’ angular, angry stabs are accompanied by his own anguished shivers and tics as he plays; it’s fascinating to watch.
Sandwiched between this and Brahms’ thickly intellectual yet expressive fourth symphony, Beethoven’s zesty concerto feels like a slice of sparkling relief, aided by Biss’ nimble, gently precise and perfectly understated execution. Even after the athletic scales of its first movement, the real treat is his extended cadenza in the last, a movement-within-a-movement which dramatically channels the spirit of the composer he so adores.