by Simon Crawford-Phillips May 6th, 2008


Giving life to Glanert’s Concerto

Simon Crawford-Phillips and Philip Moore gave the world premiere of Detlev Glanert Double Piano Concerto with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow on 15th March 2008. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 9th August.

I’m just on my way out of the door to return a hire car and as I leave the flat I pick up today’s post. In amongst the trash is a CD from the BBC of our premiere of Detlev’s Concerto. Listening to this is the first time I fully appreciate what the BBT project has really achieved. Not the performance especially, which went well, but the possibility of giving life to a new piece.

The process of commissioning works wasn’t really a new one for us, but when Phil and I approached Detlev I don’t think either of us anticipated the scope and breadth that the Concerto would have. In a sense it reminds me a lot of having a baby: months and months of gestation and then (as was the case with us) when the day before the concert arrives and you get to hear the piece for the first time, in its entirety, it’s an overwhelming experience. But although it’s extraordinarily exciting it feels very much like this is the start of something rather than the end.

The real beginning was a long time ago now. A cup of coffee in a meeting room at Booseys’ and it was all done. Detlev, much to our surprise and delight, already seemed to have a clear idea of using some NASA images as the starting point for the piece. Then it was a further 18 months until we met again in Hanover and things weren’t quite so chirpy on the health front. Phil and I were giving a recital for broadcast by the WDR, which would have been fine if Phil’s stomach hadn’t decided to retaliate!! Still, despite the green face it was a great evening and the next day we played some Glanert to Glanert. This was a serious luxury, to have the chance of working with Detlev and knowing that we still had a month before the premiere. A few tiny changes, but mainly it gave us a chance to start “playing” the piece and bringing the notes off the page.

Something which really caught my ear was Detlev’s obsession with and sensitivity to structure. The relationship of the big building-blocks of a piece and the smaller blocks within them and the phrases within them etc. seemed very important to him. This clear basic structure is always there in great music because within this is the space to be free. For me it’s the possibility of freedom that gives the music a soul and hopefully a longevity. If it can be different every time, and cohesive, then you’ve got something.

As I race through the pages of Bill Bryson’s best-seller ‘A short history of nearly everything’ which deals with the creation of the universe and more (not bad for 500 pages), I keep thinking of the parallels between music and nature – not just because the Concerto is based on images from space, but also with relation to ideas of gravity and time. The piece opens with a simple five-note cell, a tiny bundle of molecular musical matter, vibrating, unstable and rich in its ability to combine, expand, contract and evolve in almost any dimension… and that’s what Detlev does. Of course, this is a classical compositional approach, but his is one which embraces sound and harmony in a very compelling way. These five notes have their own gravitational field too, which pulls and repels the other musical ideas that spring up from the silence. And in the quiet heart of the piece these same five notes are blown apart and time stops.

To work through a piece and discover these things is half the joy of the music for me. As a performer we can see the notes on the page, so it’s our job to reveal the secrets and the mysteries that lie behind. Perhaps some of them remain with the composer, but hopefully with each performance we solve a few more riddles and the music is clearer, simpler and more expressive for it. That’s why we need a tour now please!…

The premiere was a great thrill for us. Martyn Brabbins and BBCSSO were the ideal comrades for such an adventure into the unknown. When you’ve only got 2½ hours to rehearse a 25-minute concerto that nobody has heard before, Martyn’s unflappable professionalism is seriously reassuring. In fact the dress-rehearsal of the other pieces over-ran as well, so we ended up in the unenviable position of never having played the cadenza in the context of the piece! But adrenalin is a wonderful drug for focusing as well as distracting, and happily it was working with us in this case.

It was a strange feeling after the concert and the dinner and the whiskies to find myself on a plane the next morning at an unfeasibly early hour heading towards a performance of Ravel’s Piano Trio that same day. But amongst the bleary-eyed thoughts I did reflect on what it must have been like to hear the opening phrase of Ravel’s piece for the first time and how special that must have been! Ravel’s Trio is considered one of the masterpieces of its genre and we hope that Detlev’s foray into music for 176 piano keys is soon appreciated in the same way.

Anyway, the piece is now out there. The moment of its birth has past but is definitely not forgotten and now we just need to play it again…

A 7-minute film, documenting the final three months in preparation for the premiere is available to view now at www.bbtartistslive.com

6th May 2008