Missed Opportunities in LSO Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Bartok, Tchaikovsky: Janine Jansen (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Antonio Pappano (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 16.10.2014.  (GD)

Ravel: Ma Mere I’oye Suite
Bartok : Violin Concerto No.1, Op. Posth
Tchaikovsky:  Casse Noisette (The Nutcracker) Act Two.


The only connecting theme in Pappano’s much anticipated return as a concert conductor seemed to be of works which in various ways were edited or re-edited. And surely, if any connecting thread was intended, would it not have been more apt to have included with ‘Ma Mere I’oye”  Tchaikovsky’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’? Despite coming from various French writers of children’s tales ‘Ma mere I’oye’ is a re-telling of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (‘La Belle au bois dormant’) allegory. The five movement ballet suite (played tonight) actually begins with a ‘Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty. I wish Pappano had played  Ravel’s final concert ballet with its added prelude, magical interludes and an extra scene, approximately another 15 minutes of wonderful music in a concert which was not extravagant in terms of duration!

Overall there was a tendency to slow down when everything in the score indicates a minimum of tempo manipulation and a sense of forward movement, while simultaneously accommodating the changes of mood in each ‘tableaux’. The Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty (‘Pavane dela belle aus bois dormant’) despite some colourfull  woodwind playing sounded rather dull failing to project the subtlety and finesse of a Monteux or a Martinon where we hear a perfection of shaping, pacing and contouring of the dance element. ‘The conversation between Beauty and the Beast (‘Les entretiens de la Belle et de bête’) made the appropriate sounds, but here I had little sense of the subtle irony, humour of the tone of the grotesque;  the conversational exchange as an essential part of the ballet’s musical, thematic narrative. Tom Thumb (”Petite Poucet’) failed to capture the appropriate tone of insouciance, shot through with the semblance of a ‘Valse Triste’. This was largely to do with Pappano’s rather dull pacing which tended to drag. ‘The Empress of the Pagodas’ (‘Laiderronette’) needed more lilt, more ‘swagger’ (as  Thomas Beecham might have said). Although the woodwind here played well enough, there was a tendency for them to sound shrill and strident. ‘Apotheose’ ‘The Fairy Garden’ (Le jardin feerique’) sounded loud and pompous, rather than buoyant and mercurial, as it should sound. There was no sense of gradual unfolding, no feeling of onward movement. The heavy metallic percussion and booming timpani in no way helped matters. And why did Pappano make an agogic de-crescendo in the coda when not asked for?

Given the context of Bartok’s First Violin Concerto the work has a positive, resolute feel to it, the opening tone of introspection and intensity soon incorporated into the movement’s D major logic of hope and resolution. The composer wrote the concerto for the violinist Stefi Geyer, with whom he was both emotionally and sexually infatuated. But Geyer had no such reciprocal feelings for the composer. In fact she ended the putative relationship, and refused to take up the work composed for her. Bartok later recast  its first movement as one of his ‘Two Portraits’ for orchestra; the first portrait. Tonight Miss Jansen gave an impassioned rendition of the opening rising arpeggio with an added seventh, which Bartok called the ‘Stefi’ motif’, Stefi could not totally erase her memory from Bartok’s domain! Although Jansen invested this with great expressive force – her silvery, almost vocal tone ravishing the ears – I rather feel that Bartok really wanted a more trenchant, sharp tone, expressive in its own way but with less vibrato and more of a sense of irony and dance inflection, all perfectly conveyed by Gidon Kremer. The first movement is a ternary ‘andante’ in D major, with a darker, brooding mid-section in B minor. The second movement is a rondo with moments of gawky humour, redolent of Bartok’s Hungarian and Romanian dance music. It is interesting to note that the concerto is full of encoded messages (mostly relating to Stefi Geyer), as in the movement’s coda, a miniature  A major fanfare for flutes quoting a children’s song which Bartok and Stefi had sung at a summer retreat in 1907. Also, and curiously, the movement ends with emphatic octave Gs, as if what we had heard was  a concerto in G! Although there was a sense of  rapport between conductor and soloist it often came apart; Pappano didn’t seem to empathise with Bartok’s grainy, sharp and rhythmically charged sound-scape. With his use of heavy vibrato, and tendency to slow down in the quieter music and speed up in the more dynamic and rhythmically charged sections. he seemed to be conducting  in a quasi ‘romantic’ style, totally  alien to Bartok’s whole idiom. I had the overall impression that both soloist and conductor were trying hard to come together, but the more they tried the more polarised they became! Jensen’s descending/ascending arpeggios towards the concertos coda were  impressive from a virtuoso perspective. But from Bartok’s perspective they simply sounded out of place. Arguably the highlight of the concert was an inspired and impassioned encore of two of Bartok’s 44’Duos for two violins’, where Jansen teamed up with LSO leader Roman Simovec. Both played with great panache and verve, with an acute sense of dialogue and sharp rapport.

 In this review I reproduced the original programme information given in the Barbican conspectus which stated that Pappano would include Act Two of ‘Casse Noisset’. But there was a note in the programme which told us that  what we were expecting was actually ‘A personal selection of highlights from Act 2, put together by our conductor’. I agree with other critics of the concert that  a performance of the complete Act 2 (an extra 15 minutes, approximately) would have been far more satisfying. Actually the same argument applies vis-à-vis the other ballet in the programme ‘Ma mere l’oye’. But Act Two is not just an assemblage of nice tuneful ballet vignettes; there is a subtle narrative logic of progression in the complete act, despite the ‘over’ popularity of particularly the ‘Divertissement’ sequences.  Pappano gave us almost the complete act minus the final ‘Waltz’ an’Apotheosis’. I say mostly as the ‘Tarantella’ and ‘Mother Gigogne’ were strangely excluded.  Despite its popularity the ‘Nutcracker’ requires the most expert conducting, the writing in these miraculous miniatures is as elegant and finessed as a Mozart dance or minuet. Not surprisingly Mozart was Tchaikovsky’s favourite composer.

Apart from some opulent playing, especially in the woodwinds, I had little sense of this finesse and elegance tonight. The Overture lacked the precise chamber-like quality which is the music’s ‘sine-qua-non’. Unusually for Pappano, who is an experienced opera conductor, there were problems with rhythmic articulation, The ‘Spanish Dance’ (actually based on Russian themes) sounded rather flat, not helped by a lack of dialogue between the trumpet part and the rest of the orchestra. Also, in the same dance there is a wonderful pp transition from the dominant trumpet theme, Pappano seemed incapable of articulating the tone down to pp, thus missing a wonderful effect. The ”Trepak’: Russian Dance was absurdly fast, much of the vigorous cross rhythms in the strings smudged. The ‘Dance of the Flutes’ lacked delicacy, the woodwind were not always synchronised with each other. I totally missed the rather haunting (unheimlich) tone of the ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’, the  celesta was ridiculously foregrounded losing all sense of balance and delicate pacing.. The ‘Waltz of the Flowers’  sounded rather four-square and bland. I recently played the 1951 NBC broadcast with Toscanini; what a joy, what  wonderful lilt, life and elegance it had, all conspicuously lacking here. The great ‘Pas de deux’ sounded too slow, or I should say it sounded like a slow tempo the conductor could not sustain! The various intricately gauged climaxes sounded merely ponderous and and ill-timed. I felt no joy or ecstasy here, and what is the point of listening to the Pas de jeux (indeed the whole ballet) if ecstasy, joy and charm are lacking? When I arrived home I played the classic Reiner version with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as an antidote to what I had heard. And with Reiner I came back, with relief, to the full splendour and charm of Tchaikovsky’s greatest balletic statement.


Geoff Diggines




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