Concertgebouw & Ticciati: Terrific Playing, Average Concert

AustriaAustria Fauré, Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy: Robin Ticciati (conductor), Vesselina Kasarova (soloist), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Großer Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 18.11.2014 (SS)

Fauré                     Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, op. 80
Berlioz                 La mort de Cléopâtre
Ravel                     Valses nobles et sentimentales
Debussy               La Mer


In the sorry tale of critic Donald Rosenberg and the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst made just the one intervention: “If the same person writes after six years that the orchestra plays beautifully and what I do is bad, somehow it misses logic.” I’ve heard plenty of Welser-Möst concerts that were just as Rosenberg described, but the sentiment is worth occasional consideration. Is it always accurate or fair to separate great playing from less than great conducting?

That thought resurfaced and stayed pretty firmly lodged for the duration of this Concertgebouw performance. Qualitatively, the playing stuck to a traditional formula of effortless technique and tonal sumptuousness – by itself, safely earning the usual, boring ‘elite orchestra plays like elite orchestra’ plaudits. But to finesse that to the level of refinement realized here achieves something rather more special. And refinement with such a warm, inviting face as well, transcending all the off-putting aspects of the elite-orchestra-as-luxury-commodity experience. No ego or showing off, no hands-off-the-gleaming-paintwork hauteur, no attitude period.

When an orchestra plays this beautifully the conductor must be doing something, then. Whipping into shape the aural equivalent of a consummately velvety velouté was a sound jumping-off point for this all-French programme, too. Yet a mother sauce remains a basis to be built on, whatever perfection it attains. There, Ticciati’s work struggled to shake an appearance of incompletion.

The Pelléas et Mélisande suite was orchestral Fauré as heard on commercial classical radio or suggestive chocolate adverts (or those adverts as played on commercial classical radio): a non-threatening, very middle-class imagining of sensuality, that is to say about as sensuous as dried fruit. A shame that the Sicilienne was missing its customary flashes of heat in the plunging fourths and other bits cellists like to milk in the solo version. The Valses nobles et sentimentales followed after the interval but can be bracketed here for their limited expressive palette. Ravel’s palimpsestic mode gets the juices of most pianists flowing but becomes an altogether trickier thing to shape in the orchestral transfers of Valses, La valse and Le tombeau, which often either stun or fail to satisfy, more commonly the latter. The welter of ideas poured into the orchestration came through attractively, but stayed on the cusp of forming the Ravelian swirling of colour and light that can be so potent. Cadential fermatas exaggerated to the extreme in the penultimate waltz were a weird isolated episode, pointing up how Ticciati was otherwise simply letting tempi take the path of least resistance, not experimenting with them as an expressive parameter. The Epilogue was a little mystery all on its own – no backward glance, for sure, and lost while vaguely en route to the unguarded simplicity of Ma mère l’oye. Played straight, the quotations were treated like speed bumps.

That reluctance to take control was less exposed in La Mer, which had some really decent parts, beefier in character while remaining free of programmatic literalness. With more structural insight, key events might have been less prone to anti-climactic randomness of arrival. But set against the other three items, there was less sense of Ticciati having hit a ceiling with the work.

The grand, overwrought, slightly nuts Mort de Cléopâtre could certainly have been more overwrought, and possibly nuts, but there was some measure of drama to help propel this performance along and long-windedness didn’t creep in. Vesselina Kasarova stepped in for an indisposed Elina Garanca, her experience with this work dating back to the Cleopatra-themed program of Cecilia Bartoli’s first Salzburg Whitsun Festival. There was more of an effort here to enact Berlioz throwing the kitchen sink at the Prix de Rome committee and Kasarova sustained the monologue reasonably well, if by exclusive means of emoting her heart out with sincerity pure as the driven snow. The actual singing was impaired by problems that are not new: vocal plumbing in critical condition across the registers, and a shallow breath quality to the production that depleted the sound and swallowed the text. Unaffected self-expression was the core of this performance, but also a crutch.

Seb Smallshaw


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