Prom 5 – Messiaen, Dusapin and Beethoven with the Capuçons and Frank Braley

Prom 5 – Messiaen, Dusapin, and Beethoven: Frank Braley (piano), Renaud Capuçon (violin), Gautier Capuçon (violoncello), Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Myung-Whun Chung (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.7.2011 (MB)

MessiaenLes Offrandes oubliées

DusapinMorning in Long Island: Concerto no.1 for large orchestra (BBC co-commission with the Mitto Settembermusica, Radio France, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra: United Kingdom première)

Beethoven – Concerto for violin, violoncello, and pianoforte, in C major, op.56

Messiaen’s early Les Offrandes oubliées provided a splendid, indeed resplendent, opening to this concert from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Myung-Whun Chung. Its tripartite form was admirably clear, though that is as much Messiaen’s doing as the performers’. The recognisably ‘early’ harmonies of the outer sections, marked ‘Très lent’ and ‘Extrêmement lent’ shone through, recalling the contemporary organ work, L’Ascension – later orchestrated by the composer – perhaps above all the fragrant ecstasy of its concluding ‘Prière du Christ montant vers son Père’. The OPRF’s string tone was recognisably ‘French’ in tone, vibrato sweetly pleasing. If I could have imagined the ‘Très lent’ section emphasising more the ‘très’ part of Messiaen’s instruction, there had to be room for contrast with the third, communion-based section’s ‘extrêmement’. At any rate, the earlier section flowed and thereby doubtless created less of a problem for Messiaen sceptics. The central, ‘Vif’ section provided a brilliant contrast, the musicians’ sharpness of attack and rhythmic command scintillating in its depiction of man’s depravity, though its post-Dukas harmonies sound less ‘characteristic’. It is a pity, however, that such a fine performance was introduced by such a poor programme note. Usually I pass such things over in pained silence; however, it would be remiss to fail to note that that whilst the writer says next to nothing about the music, he nevertheless finds time to make the following extraordinary claim: ‘Messiaen is almost alone among the major figures of the 20th century’s avant-garde years – Witold Lutosławski is closest to joining him – in leaving a substantial contribution to several repertoires which shows no sign of evaporating.’ Boulez? Stockhausen? Berio? Nono? Xenakis? Ligeti? Carter? Henze? I could go on and on, even before coming to composers from our own shores; I shall not go on, but it seems that Robert Maycock would benefit from a crash course in mid-twentieth-century music before writing another such note, especially for a festival such as the Proms, which has always prided itself on its commitment to new music.

‘Stasis’ is a word often employed in connection with Messiaen, perhaps slightly misleadingly: there is progression, but it is often as much ritualistic as, arguably more so than, dialectical in a Beethovenian tradition. Certainly the progression of Les Offrandes oubliées was far more purposeful than Pascal Dusapin’s Morning in Long Island, a BBC co-commission, here receiving its British première. I was disappointed, given that I have admired a number of Dusapin’s works, including his string quartets and his opera, Passion, which I reviewed in 2008 from the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Essentially it is a tone poem – though I doubt whether Dusapin would use the term – in three sections, not necessarily evoking in ‘direct’ terms a morning in Long Island, but apparently inspired by it. The first movement ‘Fragile’, culminating in an ‘interlude’, seemed to me the strongest. From the outset, the spatial aspect is to the fore, three brass players – trumpet, horn, and trombone – placed around the hall, inciting and commenting upon the action, providing incidentally a far better impression of a fanfare than Judith Weir’s piece for the First Night. There was certainly a sense of a Sibelius-like landscape (Dusapin admires Sibelius), albeit transposed into more contemporary terms – many long-held, high-lying lines shifting and creating harmonic motion. In many ways, the music, excellently performed, so far as I could tell, proved quite hypnotic. What a pity, then, that the second section, ‘Simplement’, proved more of a trial. It seemed to go on for ever, though my watch claimed that it did not. Perhaps it was that Sibelius became more of a presence still. (I freely admit the Finnish composer to be a blind spot for me.) But there seemed to be no reason why it could not have been half the length, the apparently static music proving resolutely unmemorable, despite two contrasting loud outbursts. The final section, ‘Swinging’ struck me as merely embarrassing, all too redolent of the dreaded ‘trendy vicar’. Though the music may have tried to swing, it seemed studied, forced even, the Latin rhythms sounding all too evidently appliqué; Dusapin’s congested scoring certainly did not help. It never achieved the lift off of riotous apparent predecessors such as the ‘Hunt of the Menads’ from Henze’s The Bassarids or indeed the second of Boulez’s orchestral Notations, remaining resolutely earthbound.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto seemed an odd companion piece. It would have done so even if Martha Argerich had been able to play, but her exit undoubtedly shifted the centre of programming gravity, even though she was ably replaced by Frank Braley. The problem, then, lay not with the soloists but with Chung, who, at least on the evidence of the present performance, is no Beethovenian. This concerto needs a sharp hand – think of Karajan – to prevent it from seeming unduly discursive; Chung, however, did little other than ‘accompany’. There was no fire; merely ‘pleasant’ Beethoven is, alas, barely Beethoven at all. Tutti passages sounded disconnected from the argument constructed by the fine chamber soloists. That was a great pity, for the Capuçon brothers in particular proved excellent soloists, showing how one might on occasion ‘love’ the music without disruption to its purpose. Renaud’s violin tone was often exquisitely sweet, yet never over ripe, recalling past masters such as Jacques Thibaud; I was left wishing for a ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata or two instead. Gautier’s responses sounded possessed of just as much quicksilver, with finely judged vibrato throughout; indeed, the opening of the Largo made me wish, not for the first time, that Beethoven had written a cello concerto. Braley’s tone hardened at times, especially when it came to repeated notes – it must be recalled that he was a late replacement – but at its best was almost an equal joy: pearly, yet never precious. Perhaps the most magical moment of all, however, followed the cello opening to the finale, which had sung as beautifully as I can recall, when Renaud Capuçon’s response truly made Beethoven’s modulation tell. If only the subtle elegance with which he proceeded to turn his phrases could have been matched by such commitment from the podium.

Mark Berry