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CBSO/Volkov review – wonderfully agile quest for identity

05.01.16
Alexandre Tharaud
The Guardian

Hans Abrahamsen’s composing career has developed in phases, including a period in the 1990s when he produced nothing new at all. But over the last decade he has written some of the most bewitching music to have emerged from Europe so far this century, works that seem to reinvent familiar musical devices in an utterly original way.

Two years ago, the City of Birmingham Symphony gave the British premiere of one of the most extraordinary and exceptionally beautiful of those pieces, the song cycle Let Me Tell You, which Abrahamsen composed for the soprano Barbara Hannigan, using texts from Paul Griffiths’ novel. The success of that piece (which went on to win the hugely prestigious Grawemeyer award, and which the CBSO is bringing to the Proms in August), encouraged the orchestra to be co-commissioners of another piece, Left, Alone, a concerto for piano left hand, which Abrahamsen composed for Alexandre Tharaud, who gave the world premiere in Cologne in January. Tharaud was the wonderfully agile soloist at Symphony Hall, too, with Ilan Volkov conducting. 

Abrahamsen himself was born with restricted use of his right hand so that, as he says, he has always had a “a close relationship” with those piano works, like the Ravel concerto, composed for left hand alone. None of those pieces, though, deals with the challenge of writing such a work in the way that Left, Alone does so memorably. As the title suggests, it’s music of solitariness, in which the piano’s lonely melodic line (which only very rarely becomes chordal) weaves its way through the glittering and grumbling thickets of canons and cross rhythms that the orchestra creates, trying to establish its own identity. It regularly finds itself stranded, without support, and only in the last of the six short movements is there some kind of reconciliation between the two.

Read the rest of the review here