Classical review: BBC SSO, Huddersfield

Soloist Noriko Kawai was brightly incisive in the sharply defined role given to the piano

Soloist Noriko Kawai was brightly incisive in the sharply defined role given to the piano

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James Dillon’s orchestral music is seldom heard in his native Scotland. That may be down to its tendency to be epic in scale, uncompromisingly complex, and the fact he tends to work slowly, so major pieces can be many years in gestation.

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: BBC SSO - Huddersfield Town Hall

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Personally, I’ve often found it tough to get into in the emotional sense; Dillon’s intensity of texture, the complexity of his ideas, leaving the listener occasionally shut out, if not cold.

Hence the sense of exhilaration felt in the immediate wake of Saturday’s concert by the BBC SSO, under conductor Steven Schick, during the closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which focused mainly on two significant works by the 64-year-old. It included the premiere of Physis and the SSO’s second performance of the piano concerto Andromeda (premiered at the 2006 Proms), both of which exuded genuine warmth and definition of character.

Physis has a strange history: written nine years ago, but never performed. It should have consisted of two parts on Saturday, but one of these was abandoned during the course of last week’s rehearsals. Dillon stated it was “done for purely musical reasons”, and that the decision to withdraw Part 1 was “not taken lightly” and was permanent.

Whatever precipitated the cut, it has produced a 25-minute soundscape of sustained intensity that is loaded with scorching detail and crisp, clean structural trig points.

There is a constant recharging of ideas, which exploded successively into life under Schick’s no-nonsense approach. Dillon still has a propensity to fill the texture with needless elements – strings visibly playing but unable to be heard under the surrounding clamour – but this was a performance that made plenty sense of its many virtues.

Even more impressive was Andromeda, featuring Dillon’s wife, Noriko Kawai, as soloist. Here every note seemed to matter, whether in the sharply-defined role given to the piano, articulated with bright incision by the soloist; or the early hubbub of strings, like some muted conversational cacophony, before the full might of the orchestra opens up on equal footing with the soloist.

The programme opened with L’abscencia by the Catalan composer Hèctor Parra, who was featured in last year’s Huddersfield festival. With inspiration taken from the dark and troubled characters of French writer Marie NDiaye’s novels, the music itself is unnervingly restless, but with moments of expressive beauty, and strong tonal references that anchor it.

Seen on 29.11.14

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