Prom 26 – Donald Runnicles leads an enthralling Daphnis et Chloé

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy, Dutilleux and Ravel: Lynn Harrell (cello), Edinburgh Festival Chorus, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 3.8.2011 (CG)

Debussy : Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1891-4)
Henri Dutilleux: ‘Tout un monde lointain…’ (1967-70)
Ravel: Boléro (1928), Daphnis and Chloë – complete ballet (1909-12)

The Proms audience is the best in the whole world, so we are led to believe. Er – actually, no it isn’t. Yes it is great to see the Albert Hall almost full for a programme of French music, some of it very well known indeed (Ravel’s Bolero, and Debussy’s Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune) and some of it hardly known at all to general concert goers (the Dutilleux) but does the audience know how to behave? On the basis of tonight’s experience, I have to say, resoundingly, “no!”

Donald Runnicles came on, and waited for silence. It never quite came, so the languid flute solo of L’après-midi was accompanied by somebody behind me dropping a particularly large object, clatter, clatter, clatter, and the rest of the opening was virtually ruined by various outbreaks of the unstifled coughing which has become a real bugbear of this season’s Proms. It was an awful pity, because from what I could hear the piece was played with real attention to dynamics and tone colour, and the woodwind solos were beautifully done. Runnicles paced the music well – neither too fast or slow, and it could have been so enjoyable if only the audience would have allowed us to hear it without indiscreet interruptions every couple of bars.

Even more coughing was to accompany the great American cellist, Lynn Harrell, in his completely authoritative performance of the Dutilleux. It is heart-warming to see Dutilleux, now in his 95th year, being programmed more frequently, for there can be little doubt that he is now properly recognised as France’s leading composer, and the true successor to both Ravel and Debussy. He shares with them a sensuousness and a love of orchestral colour, although of course the nuts and bolts of his language are very different. Above all, Dutilleux has the most phenomenal ear; even when the music becomes fearsomely complex there are reference points harmonically, so that the listener need never lose his or her way. It is enthralling stuff.

There are five movements; Enigme, Regard, Houles, Miroirs, and Hymne. The second and fourth are slow, while the first and fifth are more dynamic. The central movement takes material from the first and develops it, and further developments take place in the last. What emerges is akin to an overall mirror-like shape, and Dutilleux’s fascination with mirrors is also evident in the internal developments of his material; frequently, in Dutilleux, one finds a series of notes repeated, only in reverse. But nothing in his music is ever “pat,” and nothing is ever quite what it seems; in other words, there is always something more for Dutilleux to do with his material; it’s ever-changing. But lest I’m making this sound like a continual series of intellectual processes, let’s put any such ideas to rest immediately; Dutilleux’s music, in this piece as well as his work generally, possesses enormous beauty, excitement, and immediacy. You can listen to it, knowing nothing of his methods, and thoroughly enjoy it.

And the audience, despite their coughs and wheezes, certainly warmed to Lynn Harrell’s performance tonight. Dutilleux makes fierce demands of the soloist (it was originally commissioned by Rostropovich) but is relatively kind in terms of balance; the problems of setting one solo cello against a symphony orchestra are dealt with effectively, and Runnicles and his Scottish crew partnered the soloist admirably. Harrell responded to his warm reception with a short encore of unaccompanied Bach, beautifully played, and with marginally less coughing.

An interval would have been welcome after this, but instead we had to sit through what can only be described as an appalling failure. The snare drum at the beginning of Ravel’s Bolero was completely inaudible! No, it was not because of the coughers, although they were busily continuing with their own concerto, it was because the snare drummer had presumably been directed to play as quietly as possible. The result? Silence – apart from cough, cough, cough. Then, when the first flute arrived with the famous tune, it quickly emerged that the tempo was too fast! And still there was no evidence of the drum, and the cello pizzicati were also inaudible! What a mess! Admittedly, there have been wide variations of tempo in various performances and recordings; durations have varied between 13 minutes (Toscanini) and 18 minutes (Ravel’s friend, Pedro de Freitas Branco) but Ravel himself preferred 60-66BPM, with a duration of about 15 minutes, and that’s surely what it should be; Runicles was nearer 76BPM. By the time we eventually heard the snare drum, things were unfortunately beyond redemption and with no real sense of the insistent hypnotic rhythm which is the very backbone of the piece, the best thing to do was to get outside and hope that things after the interval would fare better. I’ve since listened to the broadcast, and with the benefit of microphones you CAN just hear the snare drum and the celli pizzicato, but they’re still too quiet. The sound quality of the recorded concert is, incidentally, otherwise rather unflattering, though the coughs are well reproduced…

This reviewer was now decidedly nervous. Daphnis and Chloë is one of my favourite works. I have spent hours and hours pouring over the intricate orchestration in wonder at how every single effect works so brilliantly. And it isn’t just a feat of orchestration – the music itself is so consistently inspired and so darned gorgeous! I have also come to realise that it is one of the most difficult scores to get right in performance, with any number of awkward corners for the conductor, and a sense of where each phrase is heading constantly needed.

The audience coughed and shuffled its way through the first hushed bars, then the choir entered pianissimo, and – magic! From then on we were transported on the most enchanting journey through Ravel’s miraculous score and I could hardly fault a single thing. The choir continued to bewitch, the woodwind sang their solos captivatingly, the brass were spot-on, and the strings were resplendent or quietly beguiling as occasion demanded. The famous daybreak scene had me choking back tears, and the Danse General at the end had me wanting to get up and shout. The unaccompanied choral section in the middle was perfectly in tune and perfectly eerie too – incidentally, how could anyone ever think of performing this music without the wordless choir?

I would not quarrel with any of Runnicles’s tempi, apart from some of the more affecting moments perhaps being decidedly on the brisk side. The piece, long at 55 minutes, certainly works for me, although I am aware that others prefer the two orchestral suites which Ravel prepared. For my part, I vastly prefer to hear the whole thing because the first suite misses out far too much of the great music which follows, and the second suite feels somewhat unbalanced. And that daybreak scene, with which the second suite commences, is so wondrously effective coming after the desolate music which precedes it in the full version. Curiously, the only staged performance I’ve ever seen, at Covent Garden, did not work so well; for once I think it was a question of the choreography not living up to the standard of the music. Maybe it’s so complete in itself that anything visual is rendered superfluous?

As an aside to all this, if you haven’t already done so, may I suggest a visit to the Ravel museum at Montfort l’Amaury? It is in a lovely little house, purchased by Ravel in 1921, and this is the place where he wrote the two piano concertos and L’Enfant et les sortilèges among other works. It is full of Ravellian idiosyncrasies – musical boxes, a hidden music library, a downstairs bedroom with upside-down pillars, and a charming little garden. I was shown over the house by a lady who knew Ravel when she was a child, and I even attempted to play Ravel on Ravel’s piano. For anyone who loves his music as I do, it is a deeply affecting experience to be there.

Christopher Gunning