Powerful programme of French and Russian music from François-Xavier Roth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Manoury, Shostakovich, Debussy: Daniel Hope (violin), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, 25.5.2012 (GPu)

Manoury: Sound and Fury
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No.1
Debussy: Images

Less than a week before this concert in St. David’s Hall, Olli Mustonen had given a memorable performance of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata a few hundred yards up the road at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (see review). Having digested that (or tried to), admirers of Shostakovich were treated to a fiery and intelligent performance of the First Violin Concerto just a few days later. Shostakovich calls the first movement a Nocturne – but one needs to forget Field and Chopin (or, indeed the paintings of Whistler!). The movement opens in a darkness more Stygian than merely nocturnal (and that opening was excellently played by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under François-Xavier Roth), out of which darkness (a darkness as much spiritual as anything) the soloist initially raises a few flickers of light, a candle in the darkness, as it were. Hope’s was a pained meditation, an attempted raising of the self out of pain and darkness while refusing any facile optimism.

In this first movement the interplay between soloist and orchestra was perfectly judged, not least in the beautiful passage for celeste, strings and soloist; the movement’s closing bars were exquisite. If one has to forget the romantic nocturne in listening to the first movement of this concerto, so too one has to forget the etymological origins of the title (scherzo) which Shostakovich gives to the second movement; this is very definitely no joke. There is, to put it mildly, an absence of humorous release in this movement; the work’s original dedicatee, David Oistrakh, called it ‘demonic’ and Daniel Hope brought to it a tense, almost manic quality in some of the faster passages, an air of barely controlled (emotionally not technically) frenzy, while Roth built some powerful orchestral climaxes. The orchestral writing at the opening of the remarkable third movement (Passacaglia: Andante-Cadenza), again well-paced by Roth, returns to the first movement’s darkness, though the first entry of the soloist, a great moment, as in any good performance of this concerto, led to the creation of an atmosphere I can best describe as a kind of mournful repose, an elegiac manner which was as close in its unanguished expression of loss as the work ever comes to peace of mind. It was beautifully done by soloist, conductor and orchestra. The technically (and emotionally) fearsome cadenza is amongst the twentieth century’s finest writing for unaccompanied violin; Hope’s reading was very well-judged in terms of pace, rising to climaxes and descending from them in a satisfyingly organic fashion. The result was both forcefully declamatory and ruthlessly inward-looking, grand and pained; this was music-making of fierce intensity. The dancing rhythms of the ‘Burlesque’ which forms the final movement were not here expressive of some sort of triumphant ‘release’; Hope and Roth found in the last movement a momentum that was certainly very different from what had gone before but never lost its sense of underlying strain and tension. There was no real sense of ‘victory’; at best this movement ‘celebrated’ having got though (so far) and a determination to continue to do so. This was a powerful and, in the best and proper sense, an ‘uncomfortable’ performance of remarkable music.

Debussy’s Images, which followed, and closed the programme, could hardly belong to a more different musical world. They offered that ‘release’ which Shostakovich’s Concerto refuses the listener. In ‘Gigues’ Roth’s exact placement of detail was impressive and the relishing of orchestral colour was never merely self-indulgent. Indeed, Roth’s reading brought out structure and the network of thematic connections very well, in an interpretation that had something of the analytical about it. Jelly Roll Morton famously declared that ‘if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning for jazz’. Like a number of other French composers Debussy seems to have had a remarkable flair for that ‘Spanish tinge’, as evidenced by the three parts of ‘Ibéria’. François-Xavier Roth directed the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in an enjoyable, vivacious reading of ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’, capturing the forceful impact of the opening and elsewhere putting the stress on energy more than on grace; in ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ some of the emphases were a little on the heavy side, for my taste, but any slight reservations I had were soon forgotten in ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’, in which Roth very effectively built up the music’s sense of anticipation, reminding us that this was the festival anticipated and talked-about, not the festival itself. There was a great deal of charm in the reading but it was also attractively robust. ‘Rondes de printemps’ had both a necessary sense of loss and separation, and of celebratory welcome, a complex recognition of spring’s brevity and evanescence. This, overall, was a good, if unexceptional, performance of Images.

The evening had begun with Philippe Manoury’s Sound and Fury. I haven’t heard a great deal of Manoury’s music, certainly not in live performance, so my reaction is largely ‘innocent’.  As such it was a very favourable one. Giving a piece this title offers listeners the opportunity for an easy and tempting witticism, if one puts the title-phrase back into its context in Macbeth (from where Faulkner lifted it for the title of his novel). It comes, after all, from Macbeth’s speech in Act V, in reaction to being told of his wife’s death:

Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

But Manoury’s work is far from ‘signifying nothing’ and just as far from the  expression of Macbeth’s vision (at this point) of the emptiness and insubstantiality of life. Rather Manoury’s work (more than twenty minutes in length) uses very large forces (effectively two orchestras of strings and brass, one at each side of the stage, with percussion and woodwinds placed between them) to enact the contest between the impulses to order and disorder. A programme note by the composer explains that he took ‘these two terms, “sound” and “fury” to represent two contradictory poles in the musical material. Sound – an ordered hierarchical element capable of being organised; and fury – an anarchic state, uncontrolled, tending towards chaos and excess’ (one might note, as a final aside on Macbeth, that Shakespeare’s play might readily be interpreted in almost precisely those terms). The polarity of sound and fury becomes, by analogy at least, that of reason and passion, or of continuity and discontinuity. As Manoury juxtaposes his ‘structural’ principles and places melodic lines ‘against’ explosive brass and percussion, as he bounces ideas across the stage between one section and another, the experience of the music is finally to see the proposed antitheses as too simple, as finally transcended by their dissolution into a larger unity that seems to embrace and make sense of both impulses, to qualify each by the other, as it were. A single hearing was certainly not enough to take in all the details of Manoury’s complex score; but one hearing was enough to apprehend some of the work’s patterns and to be fascinated by the composer’s resolution of his materials. So far as I could judge (in my state of innocence) Roth’s reading was assured and purposeful; certainly he and his orchestra made a powerful case for the work’s value and I am delighted that the Cardiff audience should have had the chance to hear the work.

Glyn Pursglove