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REVIEW: Brad Mehldau and the Britten Sinfonia at the Barbican

Brad Mehldau at the Barbican
Photo credit: Barbican/Mark Allan

Britten Sinfonia with Brad Mehldau
(Barbican Hall, 16 March 2019. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The main event here was the UK premiere of Brad Mehldau’s Piano Concerto. The world premiere was last August at the Philharmonie in Paris, and it has since been heard in Barcelona and in Wrocław in Poland, and will shortly be heard, for example, in Lyon and Luxembourg. It is a big piece, roughly 35 minutes in length, consists of two long movements, and has extended solo episodes.

At a first hearing, and I suspect I am in a minority, I have to confess disappointment. The core vibe is serious, slow, elegaic, and dwells and circles rather than moving forward. There were some knotty and cerebral contrapuntal work-outs going on in the solo episodes, all rather hard to grasp, certainly at a first hearing. It was as if gravity of intent is everything. In the orchestral writing, I wanted there to be more obvious variety of timbre and colour. In the busier orchestral sections, I was reminded of the orchestral writing of, say, Patrick Doyle or Elmer Bernstein: a tendency to set up a simple motoric framework, and then to set off a lyrical voice against it. And that, to my ears and on a first hearing, seemed to be happening quite a lot. Which is fine in a film, but is there enough there to hold the attention in a concert?  There were a lot of other writers in the hall, so these early and perhaps superficial thoughts, written up and filed more or less immediately after the concert, are bound to be improved upon.

The first half had consisted of orchestral transcriptions of Bach, with a couple of interspersed improvisations by Mehldau. Curiosities were played, such as the Stravinsky transcription of Prelude X from the Well-Tempered Clavier from 1969 or Webern’s re-working of a movement from the Musical Offering from 1935. These pieces now seem like remnants from another era. Quaint, reverential, even a bit stuffy, they seemed like museum-pieces. So much has happened to bring Bach to life since then, and to let his music breathe naturally, why did we need to go there? This part of the concert also contained a quite ludicrous pause to re-configure the stage, a few minutes when in essence nothing happened; groups of orchestral players stood around chatting and waiting for their chairs and music stands to be put in place. If there had been any magic or transcendence, that moment killed it stone dead.

There was a solo encore, Little by Little by Radiohead. That felt more like Mehldau on his own terms. Yes, seriously contrapuntal, but with a far greater sense of shape and underlying direction. For me at least, it was by far the most more-ish part of the programme.

Brad Mehldau at the Barbican
Photo credit: Barbican/Mark Allan

Categories: Live reviews

4 replies »

  1. Really glad to read this as it sums up my feelings on a concert that I enjoyed, but had expected more from. Completely agree on the concerto, encore, and the jarring weirdness of that gap in the first half.

  2. I was SO disappointed in this gig and left feeling pretty dull. I thought I was on my own so pleased to see you’ve summed up my thoughts completely! I’m going to express my disappointment to The Barbican. I thought it really wasn’t very good.

  3. I echo much of this. The entire concert wasn’t very well signposted. Not a word was spoken to introduce what we were going to hear. It all felt rather serious and heavy. For me the first half just didn’t work. It was an orchestra and Brad doing their own respective bits of the (obscure) pieces. No crossover. It was as if they’d never played together. Then the first half just fizzled out with half the audience not knowing what to do. Post interval was much better. The atmosphere lifted when we heard Brad playing, arms overlapping, with intensity and contemplation, bouncing off the orchestra. And then was the encore. This is when the real Brad came out to play. One of the violinists just sat there in awe, huge smile on her face. It swung. This is what we all wanted. And that’s why, whilst I will forget most of this concert, the last five minutes will stay with me. There’s no one like him.

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