Sir Mark Elder and the LSO Commemorate the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

29/04/2016

Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Ravel and Debussy: Louise Alder (soprano), Cédric Tiberghien (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 28.4.2016 (AS)

Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad – Rhapsody
Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3)
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Debussy: La mer

This concert marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme during the First World War in which George Butterworth lost his life. We also heard Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony, which reflected the composer’s experiences in Northern France during that war, and Ravel’s Left-hand Piano Concerto, which was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during that war. Debussy’s La mer has no apparent wartime connections, but no doubt it was felt to be a suitable end of concert item after the Ravel.

But maybe there was a tenuous connection after all. Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad contains passages that suggest he may have known La mer by the time he wrote his piece in 1913. Sir Mark Elder conducted a beautifully sympathetic account of this modest little tone poem and then took a microphone for a neatly turned address to his audience in which he discussed the Butterworth piece and perhaps more importantly stressed the extraordinary and unique qualities of the Vaughan Williams work. Even now, this symphony, with its predominating slow tempi and reflective nature, is under-regarded within the composer’s symphonic output, but it expresses powerful emotions, paints vivid sound pictures and is surely one of his finest achievements.

Sir Mark conducted a most sensitive, finely judged and paced performance. In the first movement he patiently let the music unfold, bringing out its inner harmonic tensions and its quite stark orchestral colours and timbres with great skill. The slow movement, with its astringent evocation of a lonely cavalry trumpet playing a natural harmonic series in disharmony with the gentle orchestral background, creates an even bleaker effect than the first movement, and Elder’s control of this passage was masterly in its eloquent restraint. The Scherzo brings a faster pulse, which Elder projected tellingly, but what Lewis Foreman described in his admirable note as a “gallumphing” trio section dance was possibly taken too vigorously. The pace suggested inappropriately proficient footwork rather than clodhopping.

Elder moved on to the finale without a pause, with Louise Alder’s clear, disembodied solo wordless soprano leading the way forward. Here is another evocative slow movement, but with a brief unsettling quicker episode, sharply and dramatically rendered under Elder’s baton. Sir Mark’s control of the work’s soft contemplative ending, the solo soprano soaring above the orchestra again, was perfect.

Cédric Tiberghien strode on to the platform confidently and proceeded to deliver a most characterful and virtuosic account of the Ravel concerto. His control of rhythm in the second (Allegro) section of the work was especially notable and his technique was dazzling. Sir Mark gave him very strong support, although he took the opening orchestral paragraphs at slightly too fast a tempo to create effectively the slow build up of tension that should take place as a prelude to the soloist’s first entry. It was rather a pity that Tiberghien chose too long an encore, “La cathédrale engloutie”, from Debussy’s Préludes, Book One and that his performance of it was somewhat mannered and over-pointed.

To end the concert Sir Mark conducted a very British performance of La mer. It had many good features, for tempi were generally well judged, the pacing of the movements was generally sound, with warm, generous phrasing, and the LSO showed plenty of brilliant virtuosity. But that brilliance was in a way a problem, for the composer’s Gallic refined sensibility of utterance was rather lost. Loud passages in “Jeux de vagues” were too blatant, and the increase of tempo at the movement’s climax was too frenzied. Parts of “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” sounded more like Wagner than Debussy. As has been so often the case for a long time this work was mistakenly treated as a virtuoso showpiece. It needs a modern reincarnation of Roger Désormière or Désiré-Emile Inghelbrecht to show us again how it should be played.

Alan Sanders

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