United Kingdom Lili Boulanger, Koechlin, Ravel and Stravinsky: Royal College of Music Symphony Chorus, Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, Jac van Steen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 26.2.2105 (AS)
Lili Boulanger – Marche gaie (world première)
Charles Koechlin – Les Heures persanes, Op. 65bis
No. 2, La caravane;
No. 6, A travers les rues;
No. 11, A l’ombre, près de la fontaine de marbre;
No. 16, Derviches dans la nuit (UK premières)
Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No 2
Stravinsky – Le Sacre du printemps
The Philharmonia Orchestra’s current series, City of Light – Paris 1900-1950 encompasses 20 concerts stretching over a six-month period from last November to next May. With two exceptions (Dutilleux’s Correspondances and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie), the eight Philharmonia concerts in the Festival Hall and elsewhere are restricted to works by Debussy and Ravel, plus four performances of Stravinsky’s L’oiseau de feu ballet. Only in concerts given by other groups are more varied programmes listed to justify the series title: compositions by such composers as Satie and members of Les six are included, though no room has been found for Roussel or other important but unfashionable French figures of the period.
In the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra’s concert there was yet more Ravel and early Stravinsky, but a least we had two very unusual works to begin the first half. At first sight the hall seemed reasonably full, with the stalls well populated, but a glance upward revealed that the balcony was completely empty, and the seats behind the orchestra were occupied by RCM chorus members. Was it the unusual works or the presence of a student orchestra that put potential audience members off? Or was it a combination of both? Maybe the Philharmonia management knew a thing or two in mainly restricting their orchestra to safe box office repertoire.
Caroline Potter’s programme notes related the history of how Marche gaie was a known work by Lili Boulanger but had been lost until a short-score copy surfaced in the USA three years ago. At least, that is what it is presumed to be, for there is no absolute proof of it being the genuine article. Admirers of Boulanger’s subtle delicate art may have been disappointed by what they heard in Marche gaie, for as scored by Robert Orlidge for chamber orchestra it seemed a disappointingly trivial piece. Perhaps a more assured performance would have helped, since there were some shaky moments.
Koechlin’s Les Heures persannes comprises a 16-movement suite for piano in its original form. Various exotic and mysterious Arabic scenes fuelled the composer’s imagination, though his visits to North Africa didn’t in fact take him as far as Persia: it was a 1904 collection of poems by Pierre Loti that mostly provided inspiration for the suite, which Koechlin later orchestrated. He certainly has an individual voice as a composer, and the pieces we heard are quite forward-looking for 1913–16 in their use of polytonality and unusual melodic progressions, but they proved to be no more than brief, colourful sketches. Again, there was a lack of assurance in the RCM orchestra’s playing and a better impression of the music might have been gained in a more authoritative performance.
In Ravel’s second Daphnis suite the playing was of a markedly higher standard, suggesting that more rehearsal time had been allotted to it, and in her long flute solo Stephanie Vici played most beautifully. It seemed rather a shame that the chorus members had been made to put on their smart suits and elegant dresses just to add their wordless vocal colouring at two brief points in the score, but their contribution did enhance the excellent performance under Jac van Steen’s baton.
In the concert’s second half Van Steen unexpectedly abandoned his baton for the Stravinsky work – one that would seem to need clarity of direction more than most. But in fact, like Boulez or Stokowski, the conductor’s eloquent hand gestures were all that were needed to get a precise response from his young players. It was a most admirable performance all round; tempi, balance and expression all seemed just as they should be. The playing was of a remarkably high standard and almost accident-free, even at those crucial points in the score where one might expect trouble. Again, it was apparent that the players had been thoroughly schooled in this work, but there was still a degree of tension in the air that can be missing these days in performances of Le Sacre by sophisticated virtuoso ensembles. Well done to both the conductor and the fine student orchestra.