The UK Premiere of a Long-Lost Stravinsky Work Opens a Marvellous Philharmonia Concert

21/02/2017

Stravinsky, Ravel, and Ligeti: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Rodolfus Choir, Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 19.2.2017. (MB)

StravinskyFuneral Song, op.5 (UK premiere)

Ligeti – Piano Concerto

RavelDaphnis et Chloé

It is not every day, every decade, perhaps every lifetime, that one attends a Stravinsky premiere. Stravinsky wrote this orchestral work in 1908 as an elegy for Rimsky-Korsakov and it received its very first performance on 17 January (Old Style) 1909 in a concert dedicated to his teacher’s memory at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The score disappeared, along with many of the composer’s effects, during the Revolution. Nevertheless, Stravinsky, reckoning it his best work prior to The Firebird, remained hopeful. ‘The orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the St Petersburg orchestral libraries;’ he would recall. ‘I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before The Firebird.’ The uncatalogued parts were finally discovered at the Conservatory in September 2015, after which Natalia Braginskaja assembled and edited a full score. It then received its second performance, again in St Petersburg, by Mariinsky forces, on 2 December 2016. Here, in a change to the advertised programme, it received from the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen its national premiere. Much as I may have regretted the loss of Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds from the programme – I have never had opportunity to hear it in concert – I could hardly lament this opportunity; nor do I lament it in retrospect, following this estimable performance.

Stravinsky, unable to remember the detail of the score, nevertheless retained a strong conception of its overall idea: ‘I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.’ Put like that – I only read his description after the performance – it sounds, whether by accident or design, a somewhat Berliozian conception. And I think, rather as I wrote about last week’s Rihm Gruß-Moment 2 premiere (in memory of Boulez), there is something of that invisible, ‘New German’, stage to what happens here. Liszt and Wagner, as well, of course, as Rimsky himself, seem other points of potential reference, as do other early Stravinsky works such as The Firebird and, still earlier, his op.1, the E-flat major Symphony.

That sense of individual instrumental visitation was strong, naturally – a flute solo in particular made me think of the Wagner of Siegfried – but so also was a sense of the whole. If there were undoubted tendencies towards the sectional, they were few, and almost certainly a matter of work rather than performance. The aforementioned Symphony has them too, as of course, more ‘naturally’, do the ballets; at what stage in Stravinsky’s career, I wondered, did such ‘breaks’ become polemical, a compositional strategy, rather than a slight, ‘un-symphonic’ weakness? Does his cellular method in, say, The Rite of Spring, actually arise in part from a lack of inclination to Austro-German symphonism? It was neo-Wagnerian Fate that seemed to rule the roost in the closing bars; surely this overwhelming weight of influence, partly via Rimsky, partly direct, was a factor in the composer’s later anti-Wagnerism?

Many thanks, I should add, to Boosey & Hawkes, for permitting me to see a copy of the score in Dr Braginskaja’s new edition. Salonen seemed, unsurprisingly, greatly moved by the experience, clutching his score with evident devotion as he – and it – received deservedly warm applause. For a list of other premieres, click here.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard joined Salonen and a vastly reduced orchestra – more of a modern ‘ensemble’ really, and a highly virtuosic one at that – for Ligeti’s Piano Concerto. I do not know what it has been in the air this year so far: barely past mid-February, and I have already heard Le grand macabre, the Violin Concerto, the first String Quartet, and now this. Long, however, may it continue! Rhythmic exactitude characterised the opening, as it must, but it was never for its own sake, always expressive. Stravinsky – later Stravinsky, of course – and the Central African pygmies in whose music Ligeti took such an interest, were possible points of reference, but this music unquestionably spoke for itself. Salonen’s conducting of such an array of metrical lines was as impressive as Aimard’s furious pianistic despatch of others. I learned much by simply watching, although still more, of course, by listening.

Lento e deserto is Ligeti’s marking for the second movement, and ‘deserto’ it immediately sounded. Piccolo and double bass, eventually joined by bassoon, created not only a unique soundworld, but, more importantly, a unique emotional world. It sounded, felt like ‘night music’ after Bartók, but the ‘after’ was just as important as the ‘Bartók’. It was quite mesmerising to hear, to experience how other instruments sounded both like and unlike ‘themselves’, without much in the way of extended techniques as traditionally understood. Bartók also seemed to make a ghostly appearance in some of the piano melody and harmony, the contrasting orchestral eruptions packing a punch such as he would surely have approved of. Aimard’s mastery of such brutally difficult writing was in itself not the least of the many wonders of this movement. An enigmatic ocarina added further to the sense of almost other-worldly desolation.

The third and fourth movements sounded particularly strongly connected, the latter very much a response to the former – which entails difference, of course, as well as affinity, much of it or rather of them! If the third movement opened both in febrile and mellifluous fashion, suggesting perhaps a reimagining of Debussy (partly Aimard’s doing?), then a kinship with Messiaen later suggested itself (again, surely, born in part of Aimard’s immersion in that composer’s music). Percussionists and violin (Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay) proved at times soloists, and/or chamber companions, in their own right. The complexity of invention in the fifth and final movement had me think at times of Elliott Carter, and yet what we heard could not merely be ‘likened’ to anything else. This was a spellbinding performance, almost as exhausting as it was to play, yet surely every bit as rewarding too. Let us hope that there will be more Ligeti to come from Salonen and his orchestra in the not too distant future. Now where might I hear the Cello Concerto and the Double Concerto?

After two such intrinsically extraordinary performances, Daphnis et Chloé might well have come across as a bit of an anti-climax. Not a bit of it. Balance and atmosphere were revealed throughout as two sides to the same coin. I was struck by how ‘French’ the Philharmonia sounded, not least in its string tone; this was an unquestionably Ravelian eroticism we heard. Salonen traced the score’s contours lovingly, knowingly; here there were no corners to be perceived, however tricky that must have been to engineer. One could visualise – the dramatic directions in the score were shown as surtitles – but equally one could hear this ‘choreographic symphony’ without doing so. Dance, nevertheless, lay at its heart. If laughter were as vividly pictorial as anything in a Strauss tone poem, it was, as in Strauss, never permitted to distract from the musical argument. The eerie stillness when an ‘unnatural light’ suffused the landscape was quite something indeed; one really began to hear what Stravinsky so admired in this score.

Pan’s apparition proved awesome in the proper sense, seemingly leading to intimations of The Rite of Spring in the second part, which took upon itself something of the character of a symphonic scherzo – until, as with Ligeti, it became something else entirely. Character, like everything else, was never static. Here, one felt, was a musical development quite different from anything in Beethoven, yet no less impressive. The warmth of the sunrise in the third part, followed by such a glorious full orchestral sound, would have been worth the price of admission alone, leading to a climax that both left nothing and yet also everything to the imagination. The fantastical twists and turns that followed would surely again have appealed greatly to Stravinsky, engendering the excitement and indubitable conclusion of the bacchanal. There was something utterly un-Christian, perhaps even anti-Christian, to what we heard – and perhaps saw in the theatre of our imagination. And yet, quite unlike Stravinsky, say, there was nothing remotely polemical to it. This was Ravel.

Mark Berry

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for broadcast on Friday 24 February and will be available thirty days hence on iPlayer.

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