Compelling and Enjoyable Concert of French Music from Mena and London Philharmonic

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Pierne, Poulenc, Ravel, Debussy: Katia and Marielle Labèque (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Juanjo Mena (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.11.2014 (GD)

Pierne: Overture and Suite: Ramuntcho
Poulenc: Concerto for two pianos and orchestra
Ravel: Rhapsodie espagnole
Debussy: La mer


This was the best all-French concert I have heard for a long time. Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena demonstrated a complete empathy with the various French idioms displayed tonight. The Labèque sisters, who are as alluring visually, as they are musically, respond to French repertoire more idiomatically than any other pianists since the days of Marcel Meyer! And throughout the LPO played splendidly.

Despite his being a pupil of both Franck and Massenet the music of Gabriel Pierne, whose music was admired and much performed in his day (the late 19th century and the years leading up to the so called ‘Great War’), has gradually fallen into obscurity and neglect; his name is hardly mentioned nowadays. Like his superbly evocative prelude Les Cathêdrales most of his orchestral works are inspired by historical or literary themes.

The work played tonight comes from some incidental music Pierne adapted for a stage production of Ramuntcho. The play, adapted from a novel, basically recounts legends and myths associated with the Basque region of France, dealing with tales of sexual desire and the intrusion of religion, offset by reunion in love. The score is also full of traditional Basque folk-song melodies and rhythms. The overture is particularly lively, sparkling with traditional ‘Zortico’ rhythms in five-in-a bar time. All the sequences are brilliantly orchestrated, sounding almost as if Pierne had studied with Rimsky Korsakov – which in reality he had not – but the influence is there. Particularly bracing were the rounds of cross-rhythms which conclude the work around a theme from the Basque Anthem, accented with show-case percussion figurations and thrillingly contrasted dynamics.

I can’t think of a more sympathetic/enthusiastic conductor for this music than Juanjo Mena. His sense of orchestral balance was superb, as was his care over, among other things, dynamics. colouration, rhythmic/lyrical contrast. A new CD of Juanjo and the BBC Philharmonic has just been released which includes with other orchestral works the Ramuntcho music It also includes Pierne’s Piano Concerto in G minor with the inimitable Jean-Effram Bavouzet. I shall certainly be ordering this CD.

In contrast to Pierne, we heard Poulenc’s music, which was once seen as childish, simplistic, trivial. Poulenc, known as the ‘clown of French music’ has, since his death in 1963, grown in general status. Today such works as the opera Dialogues des Carmelites and the Concerto champêtre are revered as masterpieces, although there are still detractors who see Poulenc as a musical ‘clown’. But are not clowns also brilliant in terms of pastiche and irony? This concerto for two pianos is beautifully economic, and the work encompasses a whole range (constellation’ in Walter Benjamin’s terms) of different styles and genres, not all from ‘classical music’. Perhaps, in musical/cultural terms Poulenc was a ‘post-modernist’ avant la lettre?

The crash which opens the concerto (with bass drum and military drum) found the Labèque sisters in almost hilarious mood, but maintaining a kind of mock seriousness perfectly in tune with this concerto. Here and in other dynamic pianistic surprises Katia almost became air-born! But I have never heard so much sparkle and verve in the piano parts. Predictably both sisters inflected their parts with the work’s jazz elements, or ‘jazzy effects’, as one commentator put it, all with the inclusion of innovations reminiscent of Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto and phrased with great tonal finesse by both soloists and conductor – as were the references in particular to Mozart’s great Concerto for two pianos in E flat, K 365. Poulenc wrote to Igor Markevitch that Mozart was his ‘greatest influence and love’, and the incorporation of Mozartian phrases in the Larghetto never sounded contrived. Overall this Larghetto brilliantly evokes the mood of the stylish and elegant Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D major ‘Coronation’ K537.

Running through the concerto, sometimes almost imperceptibly, sometimes with circus bluff humour are what sound like memories from the French music-hall, tracks from silent black and white films, end of pier trashy melodrama, and a good supplement of neo-classicism, almost sounding like Stravinsky, but more as part of a Poulenc cock-tail mix than anything found in Stravinsky. All this was perfectly blended by both soloists and conductor. The LPO responded with a general tonality which could have almost been mistaken for a French orchestra.

But it was the Labèque sisters who were the real stars tonight. They never simply ‘played’ their multi-layered parts, they were totally engaged, almost ‘inside’ the music. This was most evident in the finale Allegro, which is really a syncretic ‘rondo’ merging the ‘insouciance’ of French cabaret with the mesmerising sonorities of a Gamelan orchestra. What was partiularly wonderful here was the way in which the sisters made that subltle contrast between the bawdy sounds of burlesque and the ethereal soundscape intoned by the Balinese gamelan sonorities, all sounding so spontaneous, even if shot through with the distant memories and sounds of French (particularly Parisien) gaiety. As an encore the sisters continued the mood of the Rive Gauche late night jazzy, smoky bars, with Darius Milhaud’s exotic sounding Scaramouche in a totally idiomatic rendition.

Ravel’s Rhapsodie espagnole continued with the concert’s Basque theme initiated in the opening Pierne composition. Ravel tells us that the first music he heard were the Spanish-flavoured songs sung by his Basque mother, and throughout Mena proved to be a most eloquent and sympathetic exponent of this exquisite music which intones both a Spanish and French flavour or colour, undoubtedly and partly to do with the French geographical proximity to Spain. Mena achieved a suitably shimmering and hushed exotic tone in the opening Prélude a la Nuit with its mysterious colours and dreamy rhythms. The following Malaguena was wonderfully contrasted with its A minor dance rhythms. The Habanera proved to be the miracle of deft and delicate scoring, which has made it such a favourite. Again the wild and cavorting dance rhythms were sharply inflected with a note of subtle eroticism. The concluding Feria with its quasi crescendo impression of a Spanish fair gradually approaching from the distance; a kind of colouful Hispanic panorama, was both impressively contoured, withmarvellously focused detail (especially from the numerous percussion section) while never losing sight, or sound, of the whole. Again the LPO played this music with an idiomatic flair not always found with London orchestras. all no doubt a result of Mena’s careful rehearsal methods, and ability to project his empathetic vision or inner sound-scape on to the orchestra.

With the final work, Debussy’s La Mer, we come into a much more competitive field of recorded performances, many of which have set performative standards. One has only to think of: Toscanini, Boulez and Dutoit, to name just three. But despite, and maybe because of, such competition Mena and the LPO did very well. Again he got the orchestra to play in an overall French style, with a subtlety of phrasing and an engaging finessing of orchestral balance and timbre. In De i’aube a midi sur la mer* (From dawn to noon on the sea) Mena ensured that all the movement’s themes – some relating to later developments – emerged seamlessly from the movement’s harmonic/textual structures. The movement’s blazing coda sounded exceptionally scenic and powerful, all fitting the context of an epic musical sea-scape. Jeux de vagues (Play of the waves) maintained the sense of being an intricate filigree of tonal cascades and interweaving melodies. Mena chose a more swift tempo than is usual, but thereby managed to intone the feeling of surging energy, again an important component of this musical sea-scape. *Dialogue du vent et de la mer* (Dialogue between the wind and the sea) was superbly timed and paced to ensure the unleashing of the final climax – a titanic clash of the natural elements. The ”soaring melodic theme’ which develops after an initial tutti crash and ff drum stroke was taken at a slightly slower speed. At first I thought this a rather strange deviation from the score, but Mena managed to make it cohere and integrate with the final climax and coda. The climax was not just impressive in its visceral effect, it had a wonderful sense of arriving and, also of setting the scene (so to speak) for the highly rhythmic and energetic coda. There were moments in the ‘play of the waves’ where I would have welcomed more dialogic finesse, both in the sense of gauging subtle transitions, and varying the sense of intricate dialogue, Toscanini and Boulez being truly magnificent here. But I find it hard to imagine Toscanini and Boulez, with his fantastic ear for such detail, ever being challenged, let alone equalled or surpassed. Also, at times, the woodwind could have been more clearly balanced with the strings. But although these shortcomings (there were others) are worth mentioning in a critical review, they really are not much more than marginal quibbles. Lamer, and ineed the whole concert was both compelling and highly enjoyable, in the best sense of ‘enjoyment’. I shall certainly be looking out for more Mena concerts.

Geoff Diggines

1 thought on “Compelling and Enjoyable Concert of French Music from Mena and London Philharmonic”

  1. Mr. Diggines’ consistently good and very detailed critical reviews on Seen & Heard put to shame and far out do (and undo) their uncritical and superficial tabloid rivals in the main stream media that do not even pass for what used to be called ‘music criticism’. I would very much like to read Mr. Diggines reviews of operas on Seen & Heard.

    It is a great pity then that the editors of Seen & Heard take such a long time to publish Mr. Diggines’ (and other critics) reviews here making them appear ‘out of date’ and ‘old news’ by the time they come to appear online. If Classical Source can get their reviews up the next day straight after the concert, then why can’t Seen & Heard?


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