Ravel in Spain with Andris Nelsons and the CBSO

Ravel : City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons (Conductor) Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 7. 6. 2011. (GR)

L’Heure espagnole

Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano) Concepcion
Bonaventura Bottone (tenor) Torquemada
Jeffrey Stewart (tenor) Gonzalve
Johannes Weisser (baritone) Ramiro
Andrew Shore (baritone) Don Inigo Gomez

Rapsodie Espagnole
Pavane pour une Infante défunte
Alborada del gracioso

First impressions may lead you to think that an opera with such a visual factor as L’Heure espagnole might not be the ideal choice for a concert performance. Maurice Ravel’s one act comedie musicale based upon the play by Franc-Nohain is the one about the clocks and does have a farcical element. Witnessing who gets into which clock and whether they are upstairs or downstairs, assists plot clarification, filling in for any fluency shortcomings in the quasi parlando French verse. But this presentation in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, without any hint of semi-staging (which often results in a falling between two stools), was a musical triumph.

There were two main reasons for this. First, all five vocal lines were forceful and so clear that even my schoolboy French was able to pick up more than just the occasional word. As Ravel-expert Roger Nichols pointed out in his pre-concert address, with an empathetic scoring of dynamics and pitch the composer must take some of the credit. But not all of it on this occasion: the control from the hands of Nelsons provided the rest, demonstrating that he was at one with the French composer’s score. Although at times the full force of the CBSO resounded across the auditorium, the tender moments were equally impactive. Secondly, if the libretto came too thick and fast for comfort, there was the succinct and often witty surtitled translation of Kenneth Chalmers to fall back on. As this ripping yarn shaped up, I wondered how he would deal with sans horloge, the moment Concepcion realised the man for her was the macho Ramiro and proceeded to invite him upstairs – the surtitles read forget the clocks.

The performance celebrated the centenary of the premier of L’Heure espagnole at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. The plot focuses on the sexual appetite of Concepcion, a Toledo clock-maker’s wife. This is at odds with both the practice of early twentieth century Spanish ladies (in contrast to the more promiscuous French) and Ravel’s own inhibitions; he said ‘my only mistress is music’. But brought up on the mechanical click-clack of his father’s machines and the Spanish folk songs of his mother had provided the ideal background for Ravel’s comic opera. Nichols commented on the styles Ravel inherited and applied, making reference to Lully, Mozart, Massenet and Verdi. But as well as traditional music elements, there were also ‘modern’ trimmings. Tucked away within the CBSO percussion department were the means for the sounds emanating from Torquemada’s emporium, including the stipulated use of three metronomes, one as high as 232! After the opening bars had briefly captured the ethereal world and elusive dreaminess of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the no-nonsense workshop sounds of an horologist took over with prominent contributions from Kate Thompson on celeste and Robert Johnson on harp.

The singers made a formidable team and although each had previously taken their respective roles in stage productions, none of them left their scores in the dressing room; strangely this seems to be the norm in such situations. All five were at ease with Ravel’s mode of composition – ‘sung play’ comedy-style – portraying their varying characterisations with skilful inflexions and discreet movements. The gesticulations and facial expressions of Anna Stéphany as Concepcion were particularly good, conveying a miscellany of allure, indignation and piquancy. Her ‘Oh! La pitoyable aventure’, regretting the inadequacies of her two lovers, was a dramatic reprise of one of her numbers as England’s representative in the 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World Contest. Jeffrey Stewart (replacing the scheduled Yann Bueron) sang the poet Gonzalve, more interested in writing bad verse than in the delectable Stéphany; this indifference came across in his lyrical tenor delivery. Versatile baritone Andrew Shore amply filled the role of the other potential suitor, the portly banker Don Inigo Gomez. Shore proved he was equally at home with this figure-of-fun character (getting stuck inside one of the clocks) as he is with the much weightier Wagnerian roles. He effectively captured the mood of Inigo during his Scene IX soliloquy, torn between retaining his dignity and assuming a merrier disposition in order to attract Concepcion; the closing peek-a-boo exclamation from his hiding place inside one of the clocks of coucou was textbook. Concepcion eventually makes up her mind as to which of the three males she fancies, although with the handsome Johannes Weisser as Ramiro it was really no contest. Another find from the Cardiff contest (the Norwegian entry in 2007 when he was only 26) I enjoyed his rich baritone and hopefully he can progress from here. Although not the baryton-martin voice specified by Ravel (as Debussy also stipulated for Pelléas) I thought he was the pick of the bunch. Concepcion’s inattentive husband Torquemada was played by Bonaventura Bottone, a tenor who has plied his trade all over the world and like a fine wine seems to improve with age. Like all good opera buffa, this one-acter closed with a rousing ensemble number, a quintet with all guns blazing.

First up after the interval was Rapsodie Espagnole. The CBSO adopted a distinct Latin flavour, the fluctuating rhythms of the work’s four sections clearly defined by the beat of Nelsons. The clarinet team, led by Peter Sparks, made pleasing contributions to Prélude à la nuit – their cadenza was fabulous. There was a gay abandonment to the beginning of the subsequent Malaguena; this made the entry of the exquisite cor anglais of Fraser MacAuley all the more effective. Ravel’s impressionistic style came across in the following Habanera; it was worthy of Baudelaire’s description of Spain as ‘the scented land caressed by the sun’. The ferocity and pace engendered by Nelsons and his dedicated band in the closing Feria was devastating and after calming interjections from the woodwinds the final bars were ear shattering.

The popular Pavane pour une Infante défunte was next. The pizzicato strings provided a perfect balance to the soulful tones of Elspeth Dutch on horn.There was a touch of the ‘olés’ about Alborada del gracioso, the séguidilla rhythms invoking images of flamenco dancing. Impressions of traditional castanet movements dominated the initial and final thirds, while the contrasting central section featured the expressive bassoon of Gretha Tuls.

The final piece, Boléro, is not one of my favourite compositions. But it’s one thing to hear it on CD; hearing it ‘live’ in a good venue like the Birmingham Symphony Hall, presented the work in a new light. With so many opportunities for instrumental spotlighting it must be a popular piece among orchestral players. Ravel regarded it as his masterpiece ‘a piece for orchestra without music’, picking out the insistency of its simple theme and orchestrating it to an extent few composers have equalled. Nelsons and the CBSO were literally and figuratively up to speed with it. The maestro’s dynamic control that began at pp with snare drum, plucked cellos and violas, climaxing as loud as possible with the entire orchestra over thirty-six staves, was consummate. Whilst the whole orchestra warranted praise, some of the parts that grabbed me were: the solo flute of Marie-Christine Zupancic that announced the theme; the discordant strumming of Johnston and Séline Saout on harps; the heightening of tension from the syncopated high bassoon of Tuls; the colours produced by the E flat clarinet of Joanna Patton and the oboe d’amore of Katie Bennington; the jazzy style of Edward Jones on trombone; the entry of the violin sections ably led by Zoë Beyers and their double-stopping.

Andris Nelsons is about to complete his third full season as Music Director of the CBSO. During this period the UK’s second city has unquestionably witnessed what a first rate conductor he is and not least in the opera department. To name but a few concerts since his appointment, Symphony Hall regulars know how he conquered the complexities of Strauss’s Don Juan (11/11/07), sang along with Puccini’s Boheme (25/10/08), danced in time with Stravinsky’ Rite (22/1/09), lasted the pace with Wagner’s Lohengrin (12/6/10) and classicised with Beethoven (20/2/11). We now know he can master the rhythms of Spain, albeit à la Ravel. After the concert Nelsons’ growing fan club assembled for his chat along with CBSO Chief Executive Stephen Maddock, to show their appreciation. Asked where he got his energy, his reply came down to food: whilst watching the calorie intake for his physical health, music supplied the food for his soul. Whatever it is, it’s doing a marvellous job!

Geoff Read