Temperament and Precision – Grimaud in Hamburg

GermanyGermany  Ravel, Mahler: Hélène Grimaud (piano), Christina Landshamer (soprano), Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig, Riccardo Chailly (conductor), Laeiszhalle, Hamburg, 10.5.2012 (TKT)

Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Mahler: Symphony no. 4 in G major

Ravel’s G major piano concerto was one of his last compositions, written between 1929 and 1931, not long after Bolero and simultaneously with the piano concerto for the left hand. By Ravel’s own admission, he was not aiming for a particularly profound work but rather a “light and brilliant” one. A whiplash starts off the first movement, setting in motion a merry scene that could be taking place at a fair. The slow theme contributes jazzy elements, a major musical source for this work. Indeed, Ravel once called jazz a “rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers.” There are passages that seem to come straight out of Gershwin (while others are heavily influenced by Stravinsky).

Ravel had planned on playing the piano part at the concerto’s premiere in 1932. He was too ill to follow through, but well enough to conduct – perhaps an indication of the work’s virtuoso qualities. (Another indication is that Ravel prepared by practicing Chopin’s and Liszt’s etudes.) Grimaud mastered the difficulties without any apparent effort. This concerto was a fortuitous choice for her. Perhaps her true forte is not deep emotions – which were not called for. Grimaud’s unemotional approach was perfectly appropriate: when Marguerite Long, who ended up playing the piano part at the premiere, was criticized for being too cool, Ravel gave her performance his unequivocal stamp of approval. In her excellent performance, Grimaud exhibited a sure sense of dramatic tension and rhythm (even including moments of swing!). In an interview, Riccardo Chailly once stated that an interpretation should combine “temperament and precision.” Grimaud was the perfect partner for him. Her tranquil garlands in the beautiful second movement – Ravel cited the slow movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto as his source of inspiration – and her playfulness as well as spiritedness in the breathless chase of the third movement made this an exciting, memorable performance.

Much has been said about the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s distinctive sound. Chailly has aptly described it as “a sort of old gold color – warm, darker, but at the same time transparent, even though temperamental.” Mahler’s Fourth Symphony provided ample opportunity to develop that sound to the full. (The orchestra even included a Persian Flaw, a note so obviously wrong, it catapulted us back to the Ravel for an instant – a moment of complete, irrational happiness.) Representing the tail end of his “Wunderhorn” period, this was Mahler’s first major work after his appointment as director of the Vienna Court Opera, but the song that forms the center of the fourth movement goes back to the composer’s Hamburg period. The beginning of the symphony is more classical than any of its predecessors, with Chailly rendering the different threads in a way that sounded like a group of people conversing, with elements of light humor. The humor becomes darker in the second movement, where the violin, tuned up a full tone so that it sounds more like a fiddle, represents death – in a scherzo, no less! While the symphony is clearly intended to culminate in the last movement, my personal highlight is the third movement, in which the Gewandhaus Orchestra showed the full beauty of which it is capable. Mahler called this movement “divinely serene and profoundly sad.” It also contains drama, like a thunderstorm before a light evening breeze: an uplifting experience.

Due credit must also be given to Christina Landshamer, who stood in for Luba Orgonášová, singing the song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the last movement and conveying its spirit to perfection. Managing to sound childlike but never childish, hers was a wonderful mix of intimacy and extroversion. The audience was utterly euphoric.

Thomas K Thornton