France and Singapore Intersect at Cheltenham 2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Debussy: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 6.7.2012. (RJ)

Debussy: Images (oubliées)
From Préludes Book I
From Études
Préludes Book 2, etc.

Debussy, Delius, Ravel, Holst: Melvyn Tan (piano), The Orchestra of the Music Makers / Chan Tze Law (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 6.7.2012. (RJ)

Delius: Paris – The Song of a Great City
Debussy: Pagodes (arr. Caplet)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major
Holst: Beni Mora – Oriental Suite
Debussy: La Mer
Eric James Watson: Intersections

The150th anniversary of Debussy’s birth falls this year – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the organisers of the Cheltenham Music Festival. Their extensive Debussy commemoration got off to a good start with a marathon recital by the French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, who appears not to have been a great fan of his celebrated compatriot in his youth, but became a convert in his late twenties while in Japan.

Entitled “The Essential Debussy”, his recital traced Debussy’s piano output from the 1890s when he was composing salon pieces, like the Ballade Slave and Tarantelle Styrienne. (The descriptions were added to pander to the French taste for the exotic.) Then there was a rare opportunity to hear the three Images (oubliées) of 1894, published posthumously in 1977 – the second a lusher version of the later Sarabande, and the toccata-like third, Nous n’irons plus au bois, anticipating Jardins sous la pluie. The more familiar Clair de lune and L’Isle Joyeuse completed the first third of the recital.

Apart from being a superb pianist, Bavouzet is an excellent raconteur with a winning sense of humour. I would have liked to hear him shed more light on Debussy’s Études featuredin the middle section of his recital which, though brilliantly executed, do not have the same appeal as his more descriptive pieces. Hommage à Rameau was suitable reverential while La cathedrale engloutie impressed with its mysterious sonorities.

I am not and never have been a marathon runner, but a croissant revived my spirits for the third leg of this recital, which had begun at 10 am and lasted until 1.30. This was devoted to the second book of Préludes dating from 1913, beginning with Brouillards – a stunning evocation of fog and its capacity to disorientate. The melancholy of Feuilles mortes, the Spanish rhythms of La puerta del vino, the humour of music hall comedian Général Lavine were vividly brought to life by Jean Efflam Bavouzet in a performance as dazzling as the Feux d’artifice which conclude the album.

There was more Debussy in the evening when the Orchestra of the Music Makers flew in from Singapore to pay their own tribute to him and other European composers. This accomplished ensemble formed just four years ago and comprising students, musicians and young professionals from various walks of life takes its name from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode which begins:

“We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams……”

Clearly their enthusiasm and passion for musical excellence has helped to make their dreams come true, for they have embarked on their first European tour. Their next stop after Cheltenham is the Lichfield Festival. (Since bankers are getting a bad press at present, I feel I should put in good word for HSBC for helping to sponsor the tour and the concert!)

Pagodes and La Mer were OMM’s contribution to the Debussy celebration. While the 104 strong orchestra may not have set the world alight with the exoticism of Pagodes, one could put that down to André Caplet’s orchestration rather than any failings on their part. La Mer was a very different matter with some well controlled bursts of sound against the ever fluctuating movement of the waves, and when the sun rose in all its glory one could feel its warmth as the music – just like the sea – began to shimmer. The second movement was also full of delights with some fine solo passages and good contributions from the two harpists. In the tempestuous finale the brass and strings really came into their own to produce some thrilling effects; one almost felt the need for a protective sou’wester!

It made perfect sense to invite Melvyn Tan, Britain’s best known Singaporean, to play alongside this new generation of his compatriots, and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was an inspired choice. Mr Tan appears to have reinvented himself since I last heard him play and I was bowled over by the rhythmic vitality he displayed in this jazz-inspired work. The orchestra , too, responded to the infectious rhythms with some good interventions from the woodwind and an impressive contribution from the percussion section. The melancholy blues passages had a distinctly Gershwinian quality, while the reflective second movement took one back to an earlier age with some fastidious piano playing and a restrained orchestral accompaniment. Then it was back to the bustling rhythms of the opening movement with Mr Tan’s fingers scurrying up and down the keyboard at lightning speed and a pyrotechnic display from the orchestra.

Debussy is not the only composer celebrating a 150th birthday this year. Delius, born in England who resided in France for the later decades of his life, is also being remembered at Cheltenham this year. I doubt whether I would schedule his magnificent tone poem Paris: The Song of A Great City to open a concert – not even one given by the most experienced of orchestras – so it is a mark of the Music Makers’ abilities as well as their ambition that they should take it on. Admittedly there were a few infelicities, but generally conductor Chan Tze Law managed to steer his forces through the complexities of the score with confidence and vision to create an absorbing impression of the night life of the city so beloved by the composer. And what a smooth, burnished tone the large string section delivered!

Less than a hundred yards from Cheltenham Town Hall stands a statue to the town’s most famous musical son, Gustav Holst. I wonder if its presence could have prompted the OMM to make a special effort when playing his Beni Mora Suite, inspired by a visit to Algeria, for they gave an excellent and thoroughly satisfying account of it. From the start Chan Tze Law and his musicians plunged us into a strange, eerie soundworld with just a hint of menace thanks to some particularly atmospheric playing by the woodwind. The principal flute was outstanding in the repeated motif in the third movement around which other sinuous melodies weave a hypnotic spell. I half expected Holst’s statue to march into to the hall and shake the conductor by the hand at the end, but while that kind of thing might happen in opera, the Cheltenham Festival is normally spared such surprises.

The concert ended with Intersections by a Senior Teaching Fellow of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where the Orchestra of the Music Makers rehearses. The work aims to reflect the rich diversity of cultures found both in Singapore and Great Britain, but could also be seen as a tribute to the power of music to bring nations together.

Roger Jones