An Interesting Programme Beautifully Delivered: BBC NOW Tales of Travel Season Begins

10/04/2017

TALES OF TRAVEL – 1: Louis Schwizgebel (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jun Märkl (conductor). BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 7.4.2017. (PCG)

Debussy – Six Épigraphes antiques (orch. Ernest Ansermet, 1939); Khamma (arr. Charles Koechlin, 1913)
Saint-Saëns – Piano Concerto No.5, ‘Egyptian’ (1896)
Ravel – Sheherazade overture (1898)

I must begin by observing that the policy of BBC Wales in presenting their series of short ‘themed’ concerts over the past few years has been wholly beneficial. It is true that a few of the works which have been presented have been of dubious merit, but these have been far outweighed by the gain of exploring works which are rarely if ever encountered in the concert hall, and there have been some really exciting discoveries to be made as a consequence. This concert was the first in a new series entitled ‘Tales of Travel’ and combined four works written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by composers inspired by the theme of the orient – more specifically what in those days was described as the ‘Near East’. None of the four pieces are encountered with any degree of regularity in the concert hall, although all are more familiar from recordings; and all well repaid the enthusiastic response of a very substantial audience on a warm spring afternoon.

It is a matter of some curiosity that such an orchestral technician and master as Debussy was so often willing to allow the instrumentation of his pieces to be undertaken by other hands. He chose well in his collaborators, selecting composers with real merits of their own – Ravel, Caplet, Koechlin, Roger-Ducasse – but at the same time those same native merits inevitably led to an admixture of those composer’s own distinctive styles which sometimes seems to conflict with Debussy’s own more reserved and transparent instrumentation as evidenced in those works he orchestrated himself. That was however less the case with Ernest Ansermet’s treatment of the Six Épigraphes antiques undertaken after Debussy’s death. The work had originally been written for a chamber ensemble to underpin readings of poetry by Pierre Louÿs, and Debussy himself then re-arranged the music for piano duet (and piano solo) although apparently he had always intended to complete a fuller version. Ansermet generally captured Debussy’s orchestral style to perfection, and in this performance the rich tone of the orchestral strings lent body to music which (originally intended to underpin the spoken voice) might have seemed thin in places.

The one-act ballet Khamma had rather different origins. Commissioned by the American dancer Maud Allan, it led to fractious discussions between the composer and the lady in question which led Debussy to abandon work on the score. (The programme note by Richard Langham Smith stated that he completed his work on it in 1913; but my copy of the Durand score gives a publication date of 1912). Koechlin was then asked to complete the work for performance, but by this stage the moment had passed and the large-scale work (quadruple woodwind) was simply uneconomic to perform. The Durand score (for piano with additional staves indicating further orchestration) presumably represents the music as Debussy left it; it is clearly implied that Koechlin’s work involved not only instrumentation of the passages Debussy had failed to complete, but also added further counterpoint and textural matter. These tended in places to recall closely passages from Stravinsky’s Firebird (itself, of course, based on Debussian models); and the rather woolly plot, minimal even for a ballet scenario, in some ways anticipates Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with its focus on a young woman dancing herself to death in order to save her community. Mind you, that sort of idea was hardly new in 1911, when you think of Strauss’s Elektra or Florent Schmitt’s Tragédie du Salome.

Ravel himself sought to limit performances of his ‘fairy overture’ Sheherazade (the programme note added acute accents to the title, as in Ravel’s later song cycle, but my Salabert edition of the full score omits them), and the orchestral score was not published until 1975 although a version for piano duet had previously been available. It was Ravel’s first attempt at an orchestral piece, and there are certainly elements which anticipate his later writing – passages which recall Daphnis et Chloé, for example. In other places the influence of Russian composers such as Borodin and Mussorgsky are evident, with some heavy orchestration which Ravel would later have rendered more transparently; but the results are far too good nonetheless to be completely consigned to oblivion, especially in a performance as carefully nuanced as this. The operatic intentions of the music, with many dramatic passages, came across with clarity.

The final piano concerto by Saint-Saëns was the only work in this programme which the composer was thoroughly satisfied by (he wrote it for himself to play), and quite rightly too. I have never understood why the Second Piano Concerto has always been the most popular with audiences, when the same light-hearted spirit can be so happily encountered elsewhere in the Saint-Saëns cycle. Again this was a superbly nuanced performance, and the delivery of the fiendishly difficult solo part by Louis Schwizgebel had all the brilliance one could wish. The fact that he didn’t use a score (in a work which he surely not likely to play all that often) also helped communication, and made the difficulties seem negligible. The Egyptian influence is tangential (the work was written while the composer was on holiday in Luxor), and the quotation from Samson et Dalila in the central movement outstays its welcome; but the finale is simply delicious.

I have in the past praised performances by Jun Märkl – his nine-CD boxed set on Naxos of the complete Debussy orchestral music (including many arrangements by other hands) enshrined some performances which were a real revelation – and his handling of the orchestra here was all that one could desire. The delivery of the Ansermet orchestrations in particular had a sense of engagement that one seeks in vain in Ansermet’s own recordings with the Suisse Romande Orchestra; both the wind soloists and strings of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales are far superior to that of their Swiss radio counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3, but those who were unable to catch it in its afternoon slot are earnestly recommended to seek it out on the BBC iPlayer during the course of the next month.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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