The BBC Symphony Orchestra's Tippett series has reached the Fourth Symphony, his last work in the genre, and a complex score that is consistently fascinating, if at times difficult to like. Tippett called it a "birth-to-death piece", and its structure – a single-movement variant on sonata-rondo form – suggests a continuous process of organic transformation. The unnerving sound of human breathing, at times gasping and stertorous, threads through it, before becoming the work's own death rattle as the music ebbs away.
The conductor was Andrew Davis, a fine Tippett interpreter, acutely conscious of the music's ebb and flow, and of its mixture of brassy energy with restrained, gracious lyricism. Tippett had, on occasion, an almost Lisztian attraction to virtuosity as a means of increasing expressive potential, and the BBCSO's treatment of his treacherous instrumental writing was astonishing in its accuracy and vigour. Vocalist Simon Grant, meanwhile, breathed into his microphone to produce an alarming sound that made your throat constrict in empathy.
The first half of the concert prefaced Brahms's First Piano Concerto with the world premiere of Jonathan Lloyd's Old Racket. One of several works commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society in its bicentenary year, Old Racket is effectively a concerto grosso for strings. The solo quartet, however, is tuned a quarter tone higher than the rest of the ensemble, and the resulting burr sounds a bit like Handel or Elgar played on a hand-crank gramophone that alternately loses and gains speed. The piece's length, however, dissipates its wit. Stephen Hough was the soloist in the Brahms – forthright, passionate and technically flawless. Davis's measured approach to the opening impeded its sense of high drama, though the slow movement and finale were exceptional in their intensity and poise.