Debussy’s Centenary Anniversary Celebrated in Cardiff

25/03/2018

Debussy, Mozart, Messiaen: Steven Osborne (piano), Ladies of RWCMD Chamber Choir, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Jac van Steen (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23.3.2018. (PCG)

DebussyNocturnes; La Mer

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.27

MessiaenLes offrandes oubliées

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 as the principal part of the opening evening of that channel’s weekend-long commemoration of the centenary of Debussy’s death in 1918. It well deserved its honourable place. In the first place, no expense had been spared to comply with the composer’s requirements for the music. We were given all three movements of the Nocturnes, including the often-omitted final Sirènes with its demand for an additional wordless chorus of female voices. In fact, Debussy’s demand here is remarkably modest: he specifies a total of sixteen voices only in total, and clearly envisioned them as part of the orchestral texture rather than a featured element in the whole. The programme listed 27 singers, but here it seemed that we were restricted to Debussy’s specified sixteen (or thereabouts), which meant that the vocal sounds ebbed and flowed within the pictorial description in a manner which seemed to reflect exactly the composer’s intentions. Jac van Steen resisted any temptation to hurry the music either here or in the opening Nuages, where he allowed the sense of lowering menace to make its impact in a suitably discreet manner. Between these two darker contemplations, the central Fêtes had all the excitement and bustle that one could wish, without excessive speed; the central distant march on muted trumpets was precisely pointed, rather than the flurry that it can sometimes become in more excitable hands.

In the second place, a serious attempt was also made to comply with Debussy’s extraordinary demands for individual string players in La mer. And they really are extraordinary: halfway through the first movement the score trenchantly and uncompromisingly specifies ‘16 violoncellos’ and the divided writing thereafter clearly shows that this is no simple mistake. Debussy’s stipulation nevertheless remains puzzling (even Wagner managed to make do with 12 cellos in The Ring), since nowhere else in the score does he suggest that he is anticipating the use of an exceptionally large body of strings. Here the BBC National Orchestra of Wales squeezed a dozen cellists on to the right-hand side of the stage, which meant that they outnumbered the violas; but carefully judged balances meant that the overall sound was not disturbed, except possibly in the masking of one or two of the lower-lying woodwind solos. Thanks, too, are due to Jac van Steen for re-instating Debussy’s trumpet lines (frequently omitted) during the final pages of the last movement; their absence leaves a gaping hole in the onward thrust of the musical development, even if Debussy does seem at various stages to have contemplated their removal.

At the beginning of the second half of this concert, we were given a rare opportunity to hear Messiaen’s early Les offrandes oubliées, written at the end of his student days when the composer was just twenty-one. The opening movement showed, as one would expect, the strong influence of Debussy (who had died just over a decade earlier); but the eruptions of the central section demonstrated the emergence of a newly forceful sense of purpose, following in some ways the example of Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring but adding to that a sense of ecstatic elevation which reminded me in some ways of Florent Schmitt’s music of the 1920s. Then in the final movement we suddenly emerged into the full splendour of Messiaen’s mature style: a prolonged movement, scored principally for strings, achieved a sense of contemplative peace which anticipates in many ways the similar movement in the Turangalila Symphony written some fourteen years later. Some of the delicately divided scoring even suggested the presence hidden somewhere in the orchestra of the ondes martenot which was later to colour the composer’s imagination so characterfully. This was Messiaen’s first substantial orchestral score, and it was an amazing achievement.

Amongst these hothouse blooms, Mozart’s final piano concerto might have seemed in severe danger of appearing over-delicate or even pallid. But Steve Osborne, no mean Debussy exponent in his own right – his recording of the Préludes was short-listed the following morning by Radio 3 as one of their chosen best, ahead of such illustrious names as Gieseking and Béroff – was clearly alert to the temptation to inflate the score, and his delicate ornamentation of Mozart’s original piano line never set a foot out of place. Indeed, these decorations (which Mozart would of course have fully expected) would hardly have been noticeable to any listener without the score in front of them. Osborne also allowed a sense of fun – and some sly rubato – to creep into the reiterations of the principal theme in the rondo; and he followed up the concerto with Canopes from the second book of Debussy Préludes. He should be thanked for letting his listeners know what he was playing, as so many performers fail to do (and I know this is an important point for many in the audience).

Jac van Steen is to be thanked, also, for announcing to the audience the encore which he and the orchestra provided after La mer – Ravel’s orchestration of Debussy’s Danse, otherwise known as the Tarantelle styrienne. This is a notoriously difficult orchestral showpiece – the young Ravel’s writing for the brass in places seems to demonstrate the triumph of optimism over practicality – but the performance here managed to stay on the rails through all the syncopated rhythms and provided a suitably festive atmosphere to bring this magnificent and highly enjoyable concert to an end. The recording, as usual from this source, remains available to listeners on the BBC iPlayer for a further month.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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