United Kingdom Ravel, Berlioz, and Saint-Saëns: Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Disley (organ), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.5.2014 (MB)
Ravel – Valses nobles et sentimentales
Berlioz – Les Nuits d’été, op.7
Saint-Saëns – Symphony no.3 in C minor, op.78
The orchestral version of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales opened promisingly, the first waltz glossy, its surface properly shimmering, inviting and yet evading the question of what lay underneath. Properly responsive to Charles Dutoit’s direction, the Royal Philharmonic sounded on excellent form. This was not the probing, modernistic Ravel of Boulez but, on its own terms, it worked well. And if that first waltz was a little too driven, there was plenty of languor to its successor. Rubato was well judged, direction maintained. Phrasing was nicely pointed in the third, and there was much to admire throughout. It was a pity, then, that, on a few occasions, the strings were oddly tentative, a greater pity that Dutoit did little to rectify the problem. The Epilogue, however, was intriguingly crepuscular; fragments and memories were often menacing, at the very least ambiguous.
Susan Graham joined the orchestra for a spellbinding performance of Les Nuits d’été. Nervous energy from all concerned marked the opening and indeed the entirety of ‘Villanelle’. Berlioz’s individuality was celebrated, not masked, still less apologised for, melodic and harmonic twists relished, though not unduly exaggerated. Graham’s diction and sense of style, here and thereafter, were quite simply beyond reproach; Dutoit’s partnership showed him at his very best. The orchestral writing of ‘La Spectre de la rose’ – one simply cannot separate instrumentation from melody – looked forward, as it should, to Roméo et Juliette, even to Les Troyens. Graham’s sincerity of vocal delivery offered a fine example of art concealing art; it sounded as if this were an unmediated witness. ‘Léger parfum’, as heard from the harps, was properly beguiling indeed. Darkening of mood was immediately palpable in Sur les lagunes. Graham’s voice darkened and blended with a very different orchestral palate. At times, this might almost have been a contralto, not least when the voice sank for the night’s extending ‘comme un linceul’. Thereafter, there was Romantic defiance, the orchestra vividly ‘operatic’. A true sense of calling out, not just of recounting someone having done so, was to be heard with the opening – and subsequent – ‘Reviens, reviens, ma bien-aimée!’ of ‘Absence’. In its way, it emerged as a touching counterpart to the Marschallin’s melancholy concerning time’s passing. ‘Au Cimietière’ offered orchestral weirdness: positively in the subtlest of refractions from the Symphonie fantastique upon ‘rayon tremblant’, less so in the less than ideal balance to the close, the clarinet unduly prominent. But the latter was a minor blemish indeed, soon eclipsed by the experience of new horizons afforded by ‘L’Ile inconnue’.
Saint-Saëns’s Third Symphony is a peculiar work: to my ears, a more or less irreconcilable mixture of styles and material. It is difficult to rid oneself of the suspicion that many respond more to the sound of the organ than to the music itself. And indeed, the writing for the King of Instruments is decidedly peculiar, still more so, given that the composer, an excellent organist, wrote plentiful music for it. The first movement, at any rate, had a welcome air of Mendelssohn to it, the RPO admirable in its precision. To English ears, there are perhaps in some turns of phrase, even harmonic shifts, presentiments of Elgar to be heard too. Motivic construction was clearly conveyed – though is perhaps this construction not a little too obvious? (If so, that is the composer’s fault, not the performers’.) The slow movement made its unhurried progress – again not entirely unlike Elgar – with great conviction. Dutoit offered a fine sense of line, and balance between organ and orchestra was well achieved. There was, again, more than a hint of Mendelssohn to the scherzo, impressively darkened second time around. The trio sounded unduly hurried, though I am not convinced that it displays particularly successful writing in any case. Be that as it may, the transition to the finale was convincingly shaped. Counterpoint was clear and well directed. There was splendid timpani playing at the end too. As for the rest of the movement, well: if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like. I cannot for the life of me understand what those loud organ chords are supposed to achieve, but the Royal Festival Hall audience was clearly impressed, roaring its approval at the end.