Tharaud, CBSO, Volkov, Symphony Hall Birmingham

04.29.16
Alexandre Tharaud
The Arts Desk

Left, alone, Hans Abrahamsen’s new piano concerto for the left hand, swirls out of the darkness to a jagged motor rhythm. Piano and orchestra clash and interlock; you’re reminded of Prokofiev and Ravel. Then something happens. A piano plays, but the soloist is motionless. It’s been there all the time, of course – an orchestral piano, up on the percussion risers. But now it’s turned threatening: upstaging the soloist with its full two-handed range and stealing his musical voice, his very identity. And although it doesn’t really intervene again until the last movement, you’re continually aware of its sinister gloss black presence crouching there in the background – a quiet doppelganger, waiting to make its move. The concerto becomes a dark fairy tale.

Am I going too far? To be fair, Abrahamsen actually describes the last of the concerto’s six short movements as ‘in flying time, Fairy Tale Time’, and, himself unable to play the piano with his right hand, clearly identifies with his soloist. For this UK premiere that was the work’s dedicatee, Alexandre Tharaud, bringing a miraculous range of tone and expression to a score which at times has him playing no more than a single note suspended in silence, or picking his way between a pair of claves. It’s rare to hear a new work in which every note has been so carefully chosen and so perfectly placed.

But Abrahamsen is emphatically not a minimalist, and Left, alone is the opposite of sterile. Abrahamsen’s fantasy creates miniature worlds of subtle, multilayered orchestral colours: chattering clouds of violins, lit up with harp and bells, and tissues of bass texture so soft and fine that you have to wonder if they’d even be audible in an acoustic less perfect than Symphony Hall. Ilan Volkov conducted with pinpoint precision, and the CBSO supported Tharaud with playing of breathtaking transparency and refinement. Transfixingly beautiful and charged with unspoken emotion, Left, alone doesn’t so much end as cease to be audible. It deserves the same success as Abrahamsen’s Grawemeyer Award-winning song cycle let me tell you (due to be performed by the CBSO and Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla at this summer’s Proms). For now, congratulations are due to the CBSO for co-commissioning a work that should by rights become a modern classic.

Read the rest of the review here