United Kingdom Berlin Staatsoper Festtage (1) – Falla and Ravel: Filarmonica della Scala, Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor). Philharmonie, Berlin, 6.4.2012 (MB)
Falla – Noches en los Jardines de España
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole
Alborado del gracioso
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Not necessarily the most obvious of Good Friday programmes, one might have thought, but it was with Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and ‘Spanish’ works by Ravel that Daniel Barenboim and his ‘other’ orchestra, that of La Scala, marked the occasion – or rather, did not. Falla’s concertante piece not so long ago received a generally impressive performance in London from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, the Philharmonia, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Though there were times when I could not help but think that the present performance would have benefited from an additional musician on the platform – Falla’s writing does not always lend itself to direction from the keyboard – Barenboim’s account on the whole possessed a greater degree of dramatic tension and impressive narrative drive, for a work that can all too easily meander. A few orchestral imprecisions aside, which might have been avoided had there been a separate conductor, the Milanese orchestra conjured up aptly sultry sonorities. Principals, be they violin, cello, most of the wind, offered much to delight in their solo spots.
The second half was devoted to Ravel. Unfortunately, the earlier pieces often lacked precision – not just the razor-sharp variety one would expect from Boulez, a true master in this repertoire, but at times even the basic standards of ensemble one would expect from a major orchestra. Orchestral sonority, moreover, could sometimes sound more Romantic in Puccini-like fashion than is really appropriate for Ravel, however intriguing the idea might sound. And so, whilst enjoyable enough, the Rapsodie espagnole emerged as if one had heard a decent rehearsal rather than a truly finished, let alone polished, performance. The heaviness one sometimes heard in the ‘Feria’ was also a characteristic of Alborado del gracioso, at least in its outer sections. Perhaps predictably by now, its central section came off best, ‘Spanish’ and sultry in a fashion that took us back to Falla. Pavane pour une infante défunte suffered, again, from a lack of precision: one would never have understood Stravinsky’s celebrated reference to Ravel as Swiss watchmaker. The final chord was disturbingly hazy and unfocused.
It came then, as something of a surprise, albeit a welcome one, that Boléro should receive so fine a performance. From the soft, almost imperceptible yet nevertheless insistent, cellos of the opening, the score manifested the necessary machine-like precision I had doubted would, or indeed could, be revealed. The impression was that the piece had been far better rehearsed, so much so that Barenboim for a great deal of the performance stood back and permitted his musicians to play sans conductor. Though the celebrated saxophone solo was noticeably well taken, suave and sinuous, so indeed were all the other solo opportunities. This was, I think, an account that would certainly repay re-listening.
I was delighted to be correct in my prediction as to encores: numbers taken one by one from Bizet’s first Carmen suite. First came the ‘Aragonaise’, the Scala strings silkily smooth and orchestra and conductor splendidly focused. Then we heard the Intermezzo, beautifully performed, though with a distinctly odd balance between flute and clarinet. (I assume it to have been deliberate, since no attempt was made to rectify the situation; it nevertheless mystified.) ‘Les Dragons d’Alcala’ followed, with a nice twist, Barenboim, ever the showman, turning to the audience at the end and singing, to the final notes, the words, ‘C’est fini’. I assumed that was that, but then the orchestra, apparently without conductor, gave the number for which much of the audience had clearly been waiting. I could have done without the clapping along from some, but not to worry. Barenboim appeared from within the orchestra to direct with respect to his presence, if not with his baton. Even when one does not hear him at his best, it is well nigh impossible not to respond to his irrepressible charm and enthusiasm.