European Integration at Its Best: ‘French’ Music in Spain

SpainSpain Fauré, Chopin, Franck: Alba Ventura (piano), Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y Leon / Salvador Mas (conductor), Auditorio Miguel Delibes, Valladolid, Spain. 11.4.2013 (GPu)

Fauré: Pélleas et Mélisande, Op. 80 (Suite)
Chopin: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.1 in E minor, op.11
Franck: Symphony in D minor, Op.48

Given that it has so often been described (surely over-simply) as an ‘international language’, it is perhaps not surprising that music and musicians have found it easier to achieve their kind of “European integration” than the politicians have. It can take many forms. A composer from one country borrowing the musical idioms of another (a great many examples of the fascination of French composers with the music of Spain will doubtless come readily to mind) or music written as a reminiscence of a country visited (such as Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony or Elgar’s In the South). Simplest of all (though the simplicity may be deceptive) are all the many cases in which musicians from one country interpret the music of a composer or composers from another. A recent academic visit to Valladolid in Spain gave me an unplanned opportunity to hear one of the best of Spain’s regional orchestras playing a programme of music written in France.

Site of a Celtic settlement and then a centre of Roman Spain, Valladolid has a long history and has played a significant role in Spanish (and European) culture. For many years it was a centre of the Castilian court and in the first half of the sixteenth century and then again for a few years in the early seventeenth century the capital of united Spain. Though the city was marked by the industrialisation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a modern visitor can still find much evidence of its past and its cultural heritage, not least its famous residents. Cervantes lived in Valladolid between 1603/4 and 1606 in a house that can still be visited, and while living in Valladolid he began the negotiations with the bookseller Francisco de Robles which led to the publication of part one of Don Quixote in 1605 (in Madrid). While in Valladolid Cervantes was at work on his Novelas Ejemplares (published in 1613), making some uses of settings in Valladolid, notably in the extraordinary ‘El licenciado Vidrera’ (The Lawyer of Glass). Other significant literary figures associated with city include the poet Francisco de Quevedo who followed the court of Philip III to Valladolid in 1601, where he studied theology and appears to have begun work on his picaresque novel Vida del Buscón and, much later, the poet and dramatist José Zorrilla y Moral (1817-1893), a native of the city and a major figure in Spanish romanticism. His house, too, can be visited. A later writer based in the city was the novelist Miguel Delibes (1920-2010). Though he is by no means a writer of merely local significance, much of Delibes’ work is grounded in his familiarity with the landscape and history of Castile in general, and Valladolid in particular. His last great novel El hereje (The Heretic), published in 1998 is set in sixteenth-century Valladolid. The name of Delibes was given to the magnificent cultural centre designed by the major Catalan architect Ricardo Blofil (2001), which contains a concert hall seating over 1,700 and smaller spaces for chamber music and experimental theatre, as well as a school of dance and other facilities. Valladolid’s own musical history was, for centuries, bound up with the life of the court, on the one hand, and with the activities of its many ecclesiastical establishments, on the other. Spanish composers who lived and worked in the city have included Luis de Narváez (1526-1549), Esteban Daza (1537-1595), Bernardo Clavijo del Castillo (1545-1626), Miguel Gómez Camargo (1618-1690) and, in our own times, Luis de los Cobos (1927-2012). The lover of the visual arts is also very well catered-for in Valladolid, both in the many fine Renaissance and Baroque buildings, such as the churches of San Bonito, Santiago, Vera Cruz and more, as well as some glorious museums and galleries which include the quite magnificent Museo Nacional de Escultura, one of the finest Spanish galleries outside Madrid and Barcelona, the often stunning collection of art from China, Japan and the Philippines, to be found in the Museo Oriental, housed in the Colegio de Augustinos, which sent missionaries to the far east for some four centuries, and modern Spanish art in the Museo Patio Herreriano.

I realise that this has been a long preamble, but it will serve I hope to show the strength of the cultural traditions and the current cultural vitality of Valladolid. Even in these times of economic crisis, the powers that be (notably the Junta de Castilla y León) continue to support the arts in a big way. The current season at the Auditorio Miguel Delibes includes performances by (in addition to its resident orchestra), ensembles such as Il Giardino Armonico, the Ensemble Organum of Marcel Pèrés, il Complesso Barocco and Musica Fiata Köln, along with singers of the quality of Joyce Didonato, Antonia Arteta and Leo Nucci; pianists giving recitals include Javier Perianes, Nikola Lugansky, Josep Maria Colom and Elisabeth Leonskaja. It is thus as the representative of a city and a region with a great history and a strong cultural present that the Orquesta Sinfónica de Castilla y Leon makes its contribution to the European musical scene. It is an accomplished, technically well-equipped orchestra. In this particular concert there were the very slightest and occasional imperfections in the work of the woodwind and brass sections, but these were trifling and did nothing to detract from a very favourable overall impression. The strings (and especially the violins) were very impressive throughout, not least in the performance of the suite (Op.80) which Fauré made from the incidental music he wrote for a production (in English) of Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande, presented in London in 1898. This is beautiful music (orchestrated for the theatre by Charles Koechlin, but re-orchestrated by Fauré himself in the Suite) which responds perfectly to the dream-like poetry of Maeterlinck’s play. The Prélude (quasi adagio) was played with just the right air of mystery, evocative of the tragic lover Golaud’s first glimpse and discovery of Mélisande; the prominent cello part in the second them of the Prélude was beautifully played by Marius Diaz (my identifications of individual musicians are based only on the programme’s list of orchestral personnel). The second movement of the suite La Fileuse, in the same 3/4 time as the Prélude, depicts Mélisande busy at her spinning wheel, a fascinated Pelléas watching her. Fauré lovely melody for oboe got full justice from the playing of Vicente Moros and thee work of the whole string section, in accompaniment, was of a very high standard. In the Sicilienne (which Fauré originally wrote as part of his incidental music for an 1893 production of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the playing of flautist André Cebrián and harpist Marianne ten Voorde was impeccably idiomatic. The unflamboyant melancholy of La Mort de Mélisande was finely played, its mood very well-judged by conductor Salvador Mas, refinedly sentimental grief rather than full-blown tragedy.

In the First Piano Concerto by that honorary Parisian Chopin (whose father was French after all), the soloist was Alba Ventura, whom English readers may well have heard working with the Philharmonia, the Hallé or the London Mozart Players. She is a fine musician, who seems, on the basis of my limited acquaintance with her work, to have a particular flair in Mozart. While admiring the spirited nature of her playing and admiring her obvious technical accomplishment I was a little disappointed with her interpretation of Chopin on this particular occasion, finding it a little on the overfussy, even wilful side, and a little too often concerned with local effect (often, admittedly, very striking) rather than with the larger lines of the music. The synthesis in Chopin’s music of idioms and sensibilities one might reasonably call ‘classical’ (his greatest musical heroes were Bach and Mozart) and of others best described as ‘romantic’, allows (indeed compels) interpreters to make choices. My own taste is for Chopin playing which puts its weight on the ‘classical’ side of Chopin’s genius. Perhaps surprisingly, given her qualities as an interpreter of Mozart, Ventura pursued a more romantic angle of approach to the music – this was, as it were, more Argerich than Perahia (though I don’t mean to suggest any specific indebtedness to Argerich in Ventura’s interpretation of the concerto). Textures were sometimes a little clotted, rather less limpid or translucent than I might have liked; things were at their most successful in the opening Allegro and the closing Rondo, full of energy and attack, but a little lacking in delicacy in the central Romanze.

If the Chopin was at least slightly disappointing, nothing of the sort could be said about the performance of Franck’s Symphony in D major, which was outstanding. Though Franck was born in an area later to become part of Belgium, his working musical life was thoroughly French, even if his susceptibility to the influence of Liszt and Wagner and, by the time he wrote this late Symphony, of Beethoven, meant that the finest of his compositions spoke with more than purely Gallic accents. Salvador Mas conducted the work with great conviction and insight and the orchestra responded admirably. The rich chromaticism of the introductory Lento was beautifully realised, taken with a slowness of pace which rightly put its trust in the subtleties of Franck’s harmonies. The transition to the main body of the first movement (allegro non troppo) was strikingly effected, the fortissimo repetition of the three-note motif from the introduction played with controlled stridency. The succeeding melody, with its quasi-triumphant air was handsomely articulated. The second movement, in B flat minor, with its well written use of horn, harp and pizzicato strings was elegant and gracile. The work’s finale (again marked allegro non troppo) sang out clearly and in the closing recapitulation (and affirmative enhancement) of melodies from the earlier movements, Salvador Mas’s conducting, not least in its unerring judgement of tempo, brought out forcefully the cyclic patterns of Franck’s Symphony. I have heard performances of this work which make it sound rather turgid or which dilute its genuine emotional and intellectual power, turning it into no more than an orchestral showpiece. Mas took the work as seriously as it deserves and produced a clear-sighted and consistently purposeful reading of the work. Any impartial listener would surely have been convinced both of the work’s merits and of the quality of the forces giving the performance.

Glyn Pursglove