BBC NOW rounds off season with Fauré, Dutilleux and Ravel

Fauré, Dutilleux, Ravel: Olivier Charlier (violin), BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Thierry Fischer (conductor), St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 24.6.2011 (GPu)

Fauré, Pavane
Dutilleux, L’arbre des songes
Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé

An all-French programme to round off BBC National Orchestra of Wales’ Cardiff season offered abundance of orchestral and vocal colour and some impressive orchestral playing. In some ways, though, it was a little less than completely satisfying.

The performance of Fauré’s Pavane which began the evening was taken at a pace which allowed the elegance of the melodic writing full scope and, combined with the pleasant inanities of the text by Comte Robert de Montesquieu (a conflation of pseudo-rococo detail, the mannerisms of Verlaine, and a large quantity of water) the result was languorous, a kind of musical equivalent of a trivial reading of Watteau. Still, the melody is lovely and the un-insistent use of pizzicato accompaniment made for some exquisite moments of colour and tone as mini-climaxes approached and receded. With fine playing and singing, there was a dreamlike quality to the result, which led us on nicely to the second work on the programme.

Now in his mid 90s, Henri Dutilleux is a master of instrumental colour, whose carefully crafted work has attracted commissions by, inter alia, Szell and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, Rostropovich, Paul Sacher, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington and the Juilliard String Quartet. Back in February of 2008, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales combined forces with Cardiff University to host a weekend devoted to a ‘Discovering Dutilleux’ Festival, at which the composer (then a mere 92) put in a much appreciated appearance. It was good to have some of his music back on the stage of St. David’s Hall, and to note that his work will feature extensively at the proms this summer. Indeed, L’arbre des songes will be performed in the Proms on 23 August, with Leonidas Kavakos as soloist, accompanied by the LSO conducted by Gergiev. The work was originally written for Isaac Stern, was premiered by him on 5 November 1985 (with the Orchestre National de France conducted by Lorin Maazel).

As in much of Dutilleux’s work there is a pervading translucence of texture, an intense attention to the minutiae of orchestral sound and of the possibilities inherent in the dividing and subdividing of instrumental groupings within the orchestra. Where L’arbre des songes is concerned one senses the notion of dreaming as having a relevance to the way in which the work constantly reprocesses its own materials, with subtle changes of emphasis and the occasional unexpected juxtaposition, as well as in its avoidance of simple paraphrasability. Of the other noun in the work’s title, Dutilleux himself has said that “the work grows rather like a tree, for the constant multiplication and renewal of its branches is the lyrical essence of the tree. This symbolic image, as well as the idea of a seasonal cycle, at the time inspired my choice of … title”. Titles matter in Dutilleux, even if they are often allusive and suggestive, indirect in the guidance they offer the listener. On the whole his music avoids the precise employment of the inherited forms though not, one suspects, out of disrespect for them. In a note on L’arbre des songes which appeared with Stern’s recording of the work (made at the time of the premiere), Dutilleux observes, “to write a work for a great soloist without indulging in pure virtuosity, to emphasize the part of the instrument without following the Classical and Romantic schemes – that is the arduous task that the contemporary composer must face”.

Dutilleux’s solution is a work which, while it consists of four distinct sections, linked by orchestral interludes so that the work is continuous, simultaneously alludes to classical four movement symphonic structure (rather than the conventional three of the concerto), each section having its own marking (Librement – Vif – Lent – Large et animé). The outlines of conventional form are clear, but the music has an organic quality of movement and development which suggests both natural patterns, of time and of growth, and the inner fluidity of mind (perhaps especially of the dreaming mind). Olivier Charlier’s performance on this occasion didn’t fully capture the work’s oneiric flexibility, but the sense of (unemphasised) form was very effective and the solo voice was beautifully integrated with the work of the orchestra, Thierry Fischer’s conducting being particularly sensitive to the nature of Dutilleux’s solo writing. In the third section the interplay between Charlier’s violin and the oboe d’amore of Emmet Byrne was ravishing, and the wit of the section of orchestral ‘tuning-up’ in the last of the interludes avoided the danger of heavy-handedness. Overall this was an absorbing performance of Dutilleux’s poetic violin concerto (if one may call it that when the composer so carefully avoided the phrase).

A little less absorbing was the performance of Ravel’s complete score for Daphnis et Chloé. The two suites from this ballet music (especially the second, of course) are staples of the concert hall and always welcome. The full score, heard in the concert environment, seems to me rather a different matter. Daphnis et Chloé is undeniably a work full of brilliant and resourceful orchestration; there are plenty of striking passages of pleasing invention; there are some fascinating rhythmic effects. But there are also some repetitions which make sense alongside the appropriate choreography, but which can become slightly wearisome heard on their own. There are some longueurs; if it is fully to hold one’s attention for almost an hour in the concert hall an orchestral work needs a greater purely musical coherence and pattern of development than is provided by the narrative derived from Longus and choreographed by Fokine (who adapted the scenario from Longus). Ravel retrospectively described the work as “a choreographic symphony in three parts” and in his Esquisse autobiographique de Maurice Ravel / Autobiographical Sketch which the composer dictated to Roland-Manuel at the end of the 1920s, he insisted that “the work is constructed symphonically according to a strict tonal play by the method of a few motifs, the development of which achieves a symphonic homogeneity of style”. Musical analysis goes some way towards justifying the claim, but the experience of hearing the work, while recognising “the homogeneity of style” cannot be said, in my experience at least, to give one a sense that this is a work that deserves the epithet “symphonic”.

Thierry Fischer’s belief in the work was evident from the commitment and disciplined passion of his conducting and the orchestra largely responded to his enthusiasm with a typically accomplished performance. Highlights included the music for Dorcon’s Dance, playfully grotesque, witty and mock-graceless and the dawn music at the beginning of Part Three (Lever du jour), magical in its evocation of rising light and renewal. The final climax, in the danse générale, was as affirmative and overwhelming as one might wish. When called upon, the solo contributions of orchestral members were uniformly impressive – though one might single out Lesley Hadfield’s violin, Tim Thorpe’s horn and the oboes of David Cowley, Gwenllian Davies and Emmet Byrne for special praise. Still, for all the sense of theatricality with which Fischer invested his interpretation and for all his articulation of some fierce dramatic contrasts, there was still a paradoxical sense both of incompleteness (in terms of all the other elements of the ballet of whose absence the very music made one conscious) and of something close to excess (if the piece had been written purely as an orchestral work for the concert hall it is hard not to believe that a greater tightness and economy would have governed some of Ravel’s choices).

But such reservations about the final work of the final concert of the season – and the reservations are far more about the work than the playing of it – must not be allowed to distract from one’s gratitude to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (and its associated chorus) for some consistently splendid music-making since last autumn. Only a single shout of ‘bravo’ rang out at the end of Daphnis et Chloé. Had the reception been for the season as a whole there would surely have been a whole chorus of such shouts – and I would happily have added my voice to it.

Glyn Pursglove