Students Excel in Demanding Twentieth-Century Programme

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Lutosławski, Debussy, Roussel: RCM Symphony Orchestra, Franck Ollu (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 6.2.2013 (GDn)

Lutosławski: Jeux vénitiens
Debussy: Nocturnes
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 3
Roussel: Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2

Sophisticated, urbane and founded on infinite subtleties of expression: everything about Lutosławski’s music suggests that it requires mature, experienced and world-wise performers to achieve its effect. This evening it got something different; a performance from the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, some members of which were not even born when the composer died (doesn’t that make you feel old?). The ensemble handled the music’s technical demands well, and the more direct approach that the young players took to the music’s expressive side demonstrated that Lutosławski’s aesthetic is not as involved or esoteric as it may sometimes seem.

Jeux vénitiens opened the concert, but it wasn’t the best way to start. The piece makes extensive use of Lutosławski’s distinctive technique of “limited aleatorism”. Those passages proved something of a hurdle for the players. All the notes were there, but they had difficulty maintaining the evenness of the texture, and the balance between the instruments was often problematic. All of the solos were excellent but, for the time being, Lutosławski’s distinctive ensemble formations eluded them.

The orchestra gradually found its feet in the following work, Debussy’s Nocturnes. The links between Debussy’s orchestration and that of Lutosławski were everywhere apparent, with the big difference that the orchestra had little difficulty in achieving what Debussy desired. The strings were on great form, and throughout the second half as well, with near ideal intonation and a unity of ensemble that many professional orchestras struggle to achieve. The Debussy really came to life in the final movement, ‘Sirènes’, for which a female choir from RCM was squeezed onto the stage between the strings and woodwinds. Some shaky intonation and ensemble from the winds in the earlier movements was ironed out for this last movement, and the sound quality from every section brought the piece to life.

But the best was yet to come. Lutosławski’s Third Symphony opened the second half, and was undoubtedly the high point of the concert. The performance was meticulously prepared, and every player was obviously on top of the notes. Unlike in Jeux vénitiens, much of the music here is loud and often declamatory, and the orchestra was able not only to give those bold, direct statements, but also to find the ideal contrast between those and the more introverted and finely textured passages. The score is something of a concerto for orchestra, regularly shining a spotlight on unexpected corners of the ensemble, and whoever the composer’s attention fell on, they always came up with the goods.

That said, the strings continued to have the upper hand over the winds. The brass in the opening fanfares was just a bit too raucous, and the woodwinds occasionally struggled to keep their intonation in place, although Lutosławski makes things very difficult for them by often writing very loud passages in unison. But the highlight of the evening was the central toccata of the symphony, a complex but highly ordered polyphonic episode for the strings. Again, the strings’ ensemble and intonation was ideal here, but they also achieved a unity of timbre too, not overly dark or heavy, but focussed and crystal clear through all those polyphonic lines.

This evening’s conductor, Frank Ollu, is a new music specialist, which is just as well given the programme. His conducting of Lutosławski’s a Battuta sections – which, ironically, he led senza Battuta – was very detailed, as if to guide the players through every potential problem in the music. This left him looking frustrated in the ad lib passages, as essentially he had to stand there and let them get on with it. This was particularly apparent in the symphony, in which the bar lines often stop right at the music’s climax, exactly where the conductor would want to intervene the most. Fortunately he was able to have full confidence in his players to continue exactly where he left off, and to take the music in the direction it needed to go.

The concert concluded with the second suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane. There are Lutosławski connections here too, which just about justified the work’s presence on the programme. It posed few problems for the players, who gave a committed performance, although perhaps lacking a little in sensuality. But it wasn’t the right piece to end the concert, not after the excellent performance of the Third Symphony. The Roussel sounded pretty pedestrian in comparison, and I can’t have been the only person in the audience wishing the evening had ended with some further utterance from the Polish master.

Gavin Dixon