Classical review: BBC SSO, City Halls, Glasgow

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You might think you’d feel short-changed, but it’s actually a rare treat to hear just one piece of music in a concert. That was certainly the case in the second part of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s mini-series exploring Bartók’s three piano concertos, which set its sights on the First.


City Halls


Star rating: * * * *

The concert was a recording for BBC Radio 3’s Discovering Music series, and in a revelatory first half, writer and broadcaster Stephen Johnson picked the piece apart with his enthusiastic but perceptive commentary.

Who’d have thought, for example, that the Magyar modernist was such an admirer of cosy Norwegian Romantic Edvard Grieg?

But it was Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen’s barnstorming performance that brought the real revelations. His brittle, volatile pianism proved just the right match for the percussive brilliance of Bartók’s piano writing in this concerto. Where the composer took relish in strident rhythms and gleeful dissonances, Mustonen responded with joyfully relentless playing, his steely digits sometimes hammering the keyboard to cut through the orchestral onslaughts.

OK, he sometimes surged ahead, leaving the orchestra reeling in his wake, and he had a strange tendency to destroy phrasing by over-accenting odd notes. But his performance was powerful, muscular and utterly compelling.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins held things together with glowing confidence, and the BBC SSO responded with hugely energetic playing, sometimes brooding, sometimes spiky.

Special mention should go to the hugely accomplished percussion section, three of whom provided an eloquently clicking, thudding commentary on the solo piano from right next to it on stage, following Bartók’s original instructions.

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