An Outstanding Exploration of Debussy by François-Xavier Roth and the LSO

26/01/2018

Debussy: Cédric Tiberghien (piano), Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey), London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 25.1.2018. (MB)

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Fantaisie, for piano and orchestra; Jeux; Three Nocturnes

Pierre Boulez, whom the musical world seems to miss more with the passing of each month, once noted that, as modern poetry had grown from the roots of Baudelaire’s verse, so had modern music been awakened by Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. As the voice and indeed the conscience of new (modern(ist)) music for considerably longer than half a century, Boulez should have known. Whilst he would have been – and was – open to other suggestions, for this is no zero sum game, it is difficult to argue with the truth of his observation. I certainly have no desire to try, least of all this year, the hundredth anniversary of Debussy’s death, when I fear we shall have far too much wishy-washy talk of ‘Impressionism’ and far too little of modernism – or, more to the point of its modernist substance and import. If the former brings people to the latter, all well and good, but it too readily becomes an easy-listening thing-in-itself, obscuring so much of what truly matters in this most radical of composers.

Nor, it seemed, did François-Xavier Roth have any desire to try to argue with the claim made by a composer whom Roth himself has consistently championed, not least in the Berlin hall that bears Boulez’s name. Here he is in London as Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO, a welcome appointment he has held since September of last year. The celebrated opening phrase of Prélude à l’après-midi, beautifully, enigmatically floated by Gareth Davies, immediately offered a sense of fantasy, even of magic, furthered by responses, whether from other soloists or the orchestra as ensemble. Roth led the work with a fluidity familiar as much from Boulez’s musical works as Boulez’s conducting, the apparent lack of bar lines well-nigh wondrous. Debussy’s Prélude sounded all the more radical, ultimately all the more confrontational, for its apparent lack of overt confrontation, Languor – yes, I know, we all overuse that word when it comes to Debussy – and concision seemed somehow to coexist, even to awaken one another.

I can live with the concert title ‘Essential Debussy’ if it attracts more people to the music, but surely it is stretching ‘essential’ beyond breaking point to include the Fantaisie for piano and orchestra. It is a fascinating work, at least as much for its atypical qualities, even its skirting (at least) with vulgarity, as for foreshadowings of the later, ‘essential’ composer. One can play spot the influence and inevitably does, to a certain extent, but perhaps it is better simply to take it, as much as one can, ‘as it is’. Such seemed to be the method of the musicians here, now joined by Cédric Tiberghien, in a piano performance both hammerless and directed. In the second movement, Debussy’s melodic and harmonic twists constantly surprised, without any need for underlining, an affinity with the piano Arabesques clear and revealing. In context, one also heard similarities to – I hesitate to say ‘anticipations of’ – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in the closing ‘Allegro molto’. I cannot say, though, that I was left regretting Debussy’s turn away from Franck, d’Indy, et al. A splendidly sec encore of ‘Minstrels’ followed.

Jeux, which opened the second half, shows Debussy at what is surely his most classically modernist. Its opening marriage of timbre and harmony proved almost melodic in itself, without quite becoming Viennese Klangfarbenmelodie; it certainly had me think again of Boulez. Roth did not neglect, though, the sense of ballet, even of (thin) sporting narrative, the musical to-and-fro evocative and unrestricted, up and until the final drop of the ball. This extraordinary score remained as enigmatic as ever, its form seemingly generated before our ears, inviting and yet resisting ad hoc analysis.

If we had heard in Jeux fragments that might – or not – have come from Pelléas et Mélisande, they were more obvious, more frequent in the less kaleidoscopic Nocturnes. In ‘Nuages’, they were especially apparent in that passing between darkness and light without ever quite jettisoning the one for the other. Roth kept the score moving with great skill, almost imperceptible and thus all the more impressive. This is certainly not Debussy that invites a display of ‘personality’. ‘Fêtes’ proved a welcome contrast with bright, almost primary colours delivered and relished by the LSO. Marriage between detail and bigger ‘picture’ was finely judged. I found it irresistible. That, of course, is precisely what sirens should be, and so they were in ‘Sirènes’, the wordless female chorus imparting a sense of something akin to secular plainsong in summer – which returned us, in a way, to the opening work. The ‘cyclical’ takes many paths and forms.

Mark Berry

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