Beethoven may have been the most-familiar name here, but this was an evening about Mason Bates, Cristian Măcelaru and Jeremy Denk.
Mythical and fantastical animals occupied the first half in which Măcelaru, in his debut with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, made a very favourable impression. Following a solemn introduction, the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus (the composer’s sole ballet score) was energised by incisive strings, sprightly woodwinds and assertive timpani that, coupled with alert dynamics, emerged as fiery and concise.
Creatures from classical antiquity were followed by a more-contemporary imagination in Bates’s Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, evocations of bizarre beings familiar and unknown. First-performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti in 2015, this glitzy work is based on a story by the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges. Bates secures vivid detail from large forces and draws on an extended arsenal of percussion with striking use of vibraphone, wind machine and rototoms. He also goes for spatial effects and places two violinists stereophonically behind harp and trombones. Frolicking clarinets bring life to ‘Nymphs’, timpani and brass conjure a flying lion in ‘The Gryphon’ and eerie tone-clusters summon the surreal 'Zaratan’. One of the most effective movements is the lyrical ‘Sirens’. As a whole it’s a kaleidoscopic mix of styles in which Bates has effectively produced a concerto for orchestra; although this musical bestiary at thirty-five minutes is in danger of consuming itself. Its surging vitality, however, was brilliantly conveyed by the BBCSO responding to Măcelaru’s clear, invigorating direction.
A similar focus informed Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto. With an impeccable technique and outstanding musicianship, Denk is a joy to listen to, his tone ranging from robust (though never aggressively forceful) to feather-light, suggesting stardust. Given the dynamism coming from Măcelaru and the orchestra, there were times in the first movement when Denk could have been more imposing, for he was somewhat at-odds with the extrovert direction from the podium, but scintillation and grandeur were heard in spades. The Adagio was pure delight, with delicate conversational woodwind exchanges teasing partnerships with Denk, and exuberance was uppermost in the Finale, Denk playful. Following such bracing syncopation it was a surprise to hear Denk’s encore: Donald Lambert’s jazzy arrangement of the ‘Pilgrims’ Chorus’ from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.