Outstanding Stravinsky from Mena and the LPO

22/02/2018

Debussy, Ravel, Delius and Stravinsky: Benedetto Lupo (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 21.2.2018. (AS)

DebussyPrintemps

Ravel – Piano Concerto in D for the left hand

DeliusIdylle de printemps

Stravinsky – Le sacre du printemps

What a strangely planned concert! The general theme was obviously spring, but the choice of works was curious, since we were offered two early works by Debussy and Delius that give only a hint of their mature styles. In the case of Printemps, the score of the original 1887 work, written for orchestra, piano duet and wordless chorus was destroyed in a fire and survived only in a piano duet reduction. Clearly the mature composer thought well enough of it to have it re-orchestrated by Henri Büsser as late as 1912, in a version which retains the piano duet in a kind of accompanying role. Büsser, working under Debussy’s general supervision, did an excellent job, since the orchestration is highly imaginative. But the basic material has something of an innocent sweetness about it, a kind of naive charm that washes pleasantly over the listener. Mena did everything to present the piece in its best light.

Delius’s Springtime Idyll dates from 1889 but was not performed until 1995. Again, charm is its main feature, and though there are some interesting ideas, nothing really develops satisfactorily, and there are only occasional glimpses of the composer’s later sound world in passages where the generally efficient orchestration develops an added piquancy. Unfortunately, the LPO seldom performs Delius, and after a tentative start the playing, though it became more assured, didn’t ever really sound comfortable. The woodwind phrasing, in particular, failed to blossom naturally, despite Mena’s committed encouragement. Will we have the chance one day to hear Mena and the LPO in a mature Delius work such as the North Country Sketches or Eventyr? Alas, I doubt it.

The Ravel concerto seemed the odd man out in the surrounding springtime territory, but although he lived near rather than in Paris, as the other composers did at the time (yes, I know that Delius eventually settled in nearby Grez-sur-Loing), it seems likely that they all had some mutual contact. Ravel certainly knew Delius, since he made a piano reduction of his opera Margot la Rouge on the composer’s behalf.

The Italian pianist Benedetto Lupo is not well-known in the UK, but his skill in the Ravel Left-Hand Concerto must have made itself known previously to either Mena or the LPO, for his was an outstanding performance, with delicacy and power wonderfully combined. Some of the tempi in the later part of the work were as fast as one had ever heard, but pianist and conductor combined to produce a most brilliant and pungently expressive performance. There was perhaps a slightly doubtfully helpful factor in Lupo’s playing, however, since he continually placed his right hand on the piano stool in order to assist control and balance. This ability will not of course have been available to the one-handed Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned the concerto. But perhaps that is too much of a quibble.

The concert’s main attraction was of course the last work played. It is possible to become over-familiar with Le sacre, so that its dramatic force becomes diminished. But on this occasion everything sounded completely fresh. Mena directed a performance which had every necessary attribute. Firstly, the playing seemed absolutely flawless. The balance was perfect, choice of tempi was absolutely spot on at every point, there was a heavy sense of menace in the quieter passages and the savagery of the score was brilliantly evoked. It was all just about as good as could be.

Alan Sanders

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