The Birth of Joy from the Spirit of Dance

GermanyGermany Rameau, Saint-Saëns, Mussorgsky/Ravel: Lise de la Salle (piano), NDR Sinfonieorchester, Thomas Hengelbrock (conductor), Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, 22.3.2012 (TKT)

Rameau: Suite from the lyric tragedy Dardanus, compiled by Thomas Hengelbrock
Saint-Saëns: Piano concerto no. 2 in G minor, op. 22
Mussorgsky/Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition


Thomas Hengelbrock is the latest recipient of the Praetorius Music Award of the State of Lower Saxony, among other reasons for his “unconventional programming.” The theme he chose for this evening was “French music reinvents itself” – certainly an unconventional choice when considering the German Classical-Romantic tradition of the NDR Symphony Orchestra. Indeed, prior to the concert Hengelbrock described the introductory Rameau suite as “perhaps the greatest challenge so far” for the orchestra since he took over some six months ago.

Rameau not only marks the beginning of our “orchestra culture,” he was also one of the key figures in the search for a French national music as a counterforce to German “Wagnerism” after the turn of the 19th century by composers like Debussy and Ravel. French music evolved out of courtly dance. Rameau included ballet divertissements in every act of his operas, so it was in his spirit that Hengelbrock put together a suite from Dardanus, Rameau’s opera about the progenitor of the Trojan rulers. The orchestra captured the spirit of Rameau so convincingly that they put us straight in a French court, from the very first bar of the first movement. The music was clear, elegant – and surprisingly modern: sometimes there were such dark moods and dissonant chords that the composer’s own contemporaries found the opera disconcerting. Yet the lack of German strictness was exhilarating – that French principle of inégalité gave the music such a charge, you wanted to dance along. Small wonder that English borrowed the term joie de vivre from the French (and, for that matter, that it was a Frenchman who showed us that Bach swings with Play Bach).

Saint-Saëns was an avowed Ramist. His predilection for mixing old and new styles is obvious in his second piano concerto, which he composed in just 17 days in 1868. After an introduction that sounds like romantic Bach, the first movement becomes a lyrical and effusive improvisation, with the orchestra as partner rather than antagonist. Next is an elegant and charming, Gigue-like second movement, and the work concludes with a dramatic Tarantella full of drive. Liszt (who attended the premiere, with the composer at the piano and Anton Rubinstein conducting) wrote with customary grace: “The form is new and very happy; the interest of the three movements increases continually, and you take an exact account of the piano effects, without sacrificing the ideas of the composer – an essential rule in works of this character.” Lise de la Salle gave a wonderful performance of this rousing work. She was forceful without ever being brutal and managed the feat of using the pedal without ever losing clarity. But she is not only a virtuoso, she also brought out all the lyrical, playful, mischievous and quicksilver elements of this unabashedly romantic work. His friend Berlioz once described Saint-Saëns as “an absolutely shattering master pianist.” So is de la Salle. The 23-year-old had no reason whatsoever to be so shy in accepting the thundering applause.

The concerto directly influenced Ravel, whose orchestra version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition concluded the program. Sviatoslav Richter once said that despite his passion for Ravel, he considered this transcription “a disgrace, a horrible trivialization of the most profound masterwork of Russian piano literature into something merely decorative . . . an assassination.” As we know, the world disagrees – it was Ravel’s version that made this brilliant composition truly popular. To be sure, I also vastly prefer the original, but in the context of this program, the French orchestra version was a fitting conclusion, pointing to the reciprocal influence of Russian and French music. Hengelbrock’s interpretation was more one of Dramas at an Exhibition, letting the music sweep the audience off their feet. Oh, right: encore is also a French word.

Thomas K Thornton