Unexpected adventures with noise from Thierry Fischer

Colin Currie
London Evening Standard

By Nick Kimberley

Violinists play violins, trumpeters play trumpets, but what do percussionists play? Percussion, of course, but anything can be a percussion instrument, as long as it makes a noise when you hit it. Most percussion concertos have the soloist leaping hither and yon to reach everything the composer throws at them. Simon Holt’s a table of noises (no upper-case titles for Holt) is not like that.

Holt wrote it for Colin Currie, who’s capable of extrovert gymnastics. Presenting the London premiere with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Thierry Fischer, he showed his thoughtful, team-player side. In terms of inspiration, the concerto has a complex back story involving Holt’s taxidermist great-uncle, and the movements have colourful titles like “a drawer full of eyes”. They’re enticing, but Holt’s music is sturdy enough to survive without them.

As the piece opened, Currie measured out a rhythmic figure that, with the help of two strident piccolos, became the seed of a firm melodic idea. Sometimes Currie established possibilities that the ensemble developed around him; sometimes he followed, but the music’s inexorable forward motion and delight in unexpected sonorities were always clear.

At no point was he called upon to batter the orchestra into submission; instead, he took his place before a different percussive option for each movement, now building up broken funk rhythms, now creating subtle undercurrents. Between each of the movements came a series of what Holt calls “ghosts”, passages during which Currie remained silent. Quietly intense, they emphasised how far from the conventional percussion concerto Holt had come.

Some people approve of Proms audiences clapping between movements, others hate it. Here there was a more unsettling development: applause while the opening movement of Schumann’s First Symphony was still playing. Let’s hope it doesn’t presage a new trend. Fischer brought out the symphony’s sunny exuberance, but he didn’t underplay the occasionally cloudy moment, encouraging the horns to a satisfyingly mournful rasp while woodwinds flitted around with sprightly insouciance. The concert closed with a fruity account of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, its cheerful vulgarity only adding to its charm.