Music review: BBC SSO & Danny Driver, Dunbar Parish Church

At this challenging Lammermuir Festival concert, the BBC SSO and pianist Danny Driver developed a compelling musical argument in Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, writes Susan Nickalls
Danny DriverDanny Driver
Danny Driver

BBC SSO & Danny Driver, Dunbar Parish Church ****

This challenging programme of predominantly 20th century music was delivered with aplomb by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra ensemble, meticulously conducted by Geoffrey Paterson.

But first, looking back to the previous century, Debussy’s symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune was given a makeover in Iain Farrington’s arrangement for small chamber orchestra. While this stripped-down version teased apart the glorious array of floaty textures, the occasional sag in tempo created a more languid than dreamy mood.

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There was an elemental feel to the ensemble’s animated reading of Ligeti’s percussion-rich Chamber Concerto as they conjured up buzzing bees, the rustle of wind and a static-like pulse. In this highly experimental work, sound itself appeared to be turned inside out and upside down.

A further duality in the composer’s fascinating exploration of micropolyphony had several players doubling on instruments with opposing tonal colours, for instance the harpsichord/organ, piano/celeste and flute/piccolo.

Ligeti continued to develop these ideas in his through-composed Piano Concerto with the ensemble, Paterson and soloist Danny Driver testing his structural extremes to breaking point. Driver deftly spun giddy whirlpools of notes taking on the strings, woodwind, brass and percussion in an increasingly acrimonious argument. Throughout, the music was underpinned by a steady but unstable rhythm, with sometimes two different time signatures operating at once. Paterson kept up the tension between the different sections in this relentless and compelling standoff that barely paused for breath.

The comparative orderliness of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 put the listener back on firmer ground as horns and woodwind, in particular the contrabassoon and bass clarinet beautifully framed the strings at the heart of this spellbinding work.

Somewhat unusually for a church, Dunbar Parish has virtually no reverberance which was a pity as the flat, hard acoustics didn’t do justice to a magnificent performance by these exceptionally talented musicians.