A Fascinating Foray into Paris, the City of Light

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dutilleux, Ravel:  Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Philharmonia Voices, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 12.2.2015 (RB)

Dutilleux Correspondances (2002-04)Ravel – Piano Concerto in G Major (1928-31)
Ravel L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925)
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges
Chloé Briot – Child
Elodie Méchain – Mother/Chinese Cup/Dragonfly
Andrea Hill – Louis XV Chair/Shepherd/White cat/Squirrel
Omo Bello – Sherpherdess/Bat/Owl
Sabine Deveilhe – Fire/Nightingale
Barbara Hannigan – Princess
Jean-Sebastian Bou – Grandfather Clock/Tom cat
François Piolino – Teapot/Arithmetic/Frog
Nicolas Courjal – Armchair/Tree
Irina Brown – Director
Ruth Sutcliffe – Designer

This was the second in a series of five concerts celebrating Paris, often dubbed the City of Light, in the first half of the 20 th Century. During this period Paris was home to many of the most important artists and musicians in the world and some of the greatest compositions from the early 20 th Century were written and had their first performances in Paris. French composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Satie were rubbing shoulders with important emigré artists such as Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Picasso. This was the era of modernism and experimentation in the arts and Paris seemed to provide just the right environment to allow artistic innovation to thrive.

Dutilleux’s Correspondances was actually written in the early part of the 21 st Century for Dawn Upshaw and Simon Rattle although it looks back to the music of the early 20 th Century. The title refers partly to letters (one of the songs uses a letter from Solzhenitsyn to Rostropovich and his wife while another uses the text of a letter from Van Gogh to his brother). It refers also to the mingling of the senses à la Baudelaire. Barbara Hannigan is a renowned interpreter of this work and there was much to admire in her performance. She moved seamlessly from the more introspective and reflective utterances in the set to moments of high drama and brooding confession. While Hannigan produced a focused sound and used a rich variety of vocal timbres she seemed to be operating within a fairly narrow dynamic range and on one or two occasions I would have liked her to project a little more. Having said that, the last song, which uses Van Gogh’s letter to his brother, was particularly good. Here Hannigan created some gorgeous sounds and gave us a powerful, ecstatic ending. Salonen and the Philharmonia provided a flexible and responsive accompaniment throughout and I particularly liked the rich instrumental colouring of the second song and the soulful cello melody which opened the last song.

Mitsuko Uchida joined Salonen and the Philharmonia for Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto. I don’t normally associate Uchida with Ravel’s music but she gave an absolutely dazzling account of the concerto. She brought out the rhythmic vibrancy of the piano writing in the opening movement while the jazzy sections had an improvisatory freedom. The Philharmonia provided a sterling accompaniment and the opening solos on piccolo and trumpet were particularly good, although something seemed to go wrong with one of the subsequent woodwind entries. The cadenza was a stunning piece of piano playing with Uchida producing a gorgeous array of shimmering colours and textures. The opening of the slow movement had a nicely understated reflective quality and Uchida sustained the line marvellously. She moved seamlessly to an accompanying role, producing ethereal and delicate arabesques around the woodwind solos which were in turn extremely well executed. The final moments in the movement where the music dies away was an absolutely spellbinding piece of playing. In the last movement Uchida really went to town, giving us some dazzling passagework and boisterous high spirits. This was an extremely impressive performance and I hope that we get to hear much more of Uchida in this repertoire.

The final work in the concert was Ravel’s cautionary lyric fantasy L’Enfant et les sortilèges (‘The Child and the enchantments’). This one-act opera is based on a libretto by Colette which tells the story of a child who has a tantrum and destroys a number of objects in his room after being scolded. The shattered objects in his room then come to life and reproach the child for his actions. Ravel uses a very large orchestra for the work including enhanced woodwind and percussion sections. The production team made the most of the resources of the Festival Hall by giving us a fully staged performance. A huge blackboard was erected at the back of the orchestra with child-like drawings on it and a hologram of the face of a grandfather clock was projected just above it. The cast were wearing an assorted array of imaginative costumes and there was a variety of props, including a chair, a table and an assortment of lights. Various visual images were projected on to the blackboard and the back of the hall as the action progressed including the shattered face of the grandfather clock and flames accompanying the arrival of Fire.

Chloé Briot was sitting cross-legged at the start of the opera behind a huge book which almost obscured her appearance. For a lot of the time she had to sing behind the orchestra so she should be congratulated on her vocal projection. She brought her character convincingly to life and her singing was assured and clear. The rest of the cast similarly brought to life the motley array of fairy tale characters. The stand out performance was that of Sabine Devielhe who gave us some brilliant coloratura in the roles of the Fire and the Nightingale. Francois Piolino was superb as both the Teapot and Arithmetic and he really made the most of the comedy in the score in his foxtrot with the Teacup. Omo Bello also gave us some superb singing in her roles of Shepherdess Bat and Owl. There was first rate singing from the Philharmonia Voices: they gave us antiphonal responses throughout much of the opera and the scene where they were wearing witches’ and dunces’ hats respectively was particularly effective.

Salonen kept a firm hand on the tiller throughout and ensured the orchestra and singers moved seamlessly between Ravel’s shifting tableaux. He dealt well with balance issues and ensured the singers were not drowned out by the difficult Festival Hall acoustics. There was a range of imaginative and highly coloured effects from the percussion and woodwind in particular which helped to enliven Ravel’s fairy tale world and enhanced the action. The chain of waltzes at the beginning of the section half of the opera were charming and delightful.

Overall, this was an imaginative and well-constructed programme that was extremely well executed by all the performers.

Robert Beattie

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