The Glittering Colours of Paris, City of Light

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Stravinsky: Camilla Nylund (soprano), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 19.2.2015 (CS)

City of Light: Paris 1900-1950

Ravel: Pavane pour une infante défunte
Ravel: Piano Concerto for the left hand
Stravinsky: The Firebird, complete ballet (1910)


In this concert, the third in the Philharmonia Orchestra’s City of Light series at the Royal Festival Hall, the spotlight moved from the French operatic masterpieces (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges) which had dominated the first two concerts, to focus on the potent interchange between French and Russian art and artists which so enriched Parisian cultural life during the early 1900s, as epitomised by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

We began with a gentle, perfectly balanced performance of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) in which the Philharmonia’s Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor, Esa-Pekka Salonen emphasised the skilfully etched grace of Ravel’s theme – beautifully introduced by the horn and sweetly extended by oboe and bassoon.  The tempo was well judged: sufficiently steady to suggest the quiet dignity of a work which the composer described as ‘not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane that might have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velázquez’; but flexible enough to ebb and flow in the moments of enriched feeling.  Woodwind solos (particularly some lovely flute playing) and harp flourishes injected movement and warmth in the central G minor episode, before the theme resumed in the pianissimo violins, the return to the tonic major evoking peaceful repose.

Joining the Philharmonia for Ravel’s 1903 song-cycle, Shéhérazade, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund added a tempting dash of colour and exoticism to the orchestral mix.  Inspired by Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 setting of Shéhérazade’s nocturnal tales, Ravel’s first musical engagement with the Arabian Nights stories was an opera begun in 1898 which progressed no further than the overture.  Five years later, the composer revisited the tales with so riveted him, setting three poems from a recently published collection by Tristan Klingsor (the ‘Wagnerian’ pen-name of Ravel’s friend, and fellow member of Les Apaches, Arthur Justin Léon Leclère).

Nylund has been most acclaimed for her performances of lyric-dramatic roles in works by Wagner and Richard Strauss.  Here, while her voice was not overly full and sumptuous, she carried cleanly and easily over the orchestra, even when the vocal line sank quite low.  The singer’s French was malleable, with convincing emphasis.  Poised and self-possessed, Nylund compellingly embodied the shrewd and entrancing Princess Scheherazade, who uses her wit and invention to overcome her Sultan’s suspicions and thus save her own life.

In ‘Asie’ (Asia), Salonen took a dreamy path through the sights and sounds of the East, the orchestral hue initially quite muted, but blooming suddenly with splashes of impressionistic tints as the singer strays through a panoply of exotic seascapes, realms, cities and palaces.  Though Ravel employs a range of stereotypical ‘orientalisms’ – from the oboe’s opening modal flattened second, to the parallel harmonies in the flutes which conjure Chinese lands – Salonen brought freshness to the score, the textures airy and light as the mood alternated between vibrant exhilaration and rapt absorption.

 The vocal line often seems quite ‘Wagnerian’ in its declamatory meanderings, and from the singer’s rising invocation, “Asie”, Nylund consistently employed a warm vibrato, displaying a beguilingly tone.  Her phrasing was even and controlled; perhaps too controlled – I’d have liked a bit more radiant intensity at times, but the soprano hinted at an underlying power, when she demanded fervently, “Je voudrais voir mourir d’amour ou bien de haine” (I want to see people dying of love or else of hate).

There was much fine orchestral playing.  Shimmering tremolos from the violins, then rocking triplets in the divided cellos summoned capricious sea vistas; the clarinets’ well-defined rhythmic motif captured the vibrancy of Damascus and Persia.  When Nyland longed for “des yeux sombre d’amour” (eyes dark with love), brief solos for trumpet, principal violin and cor anglais floated beautifully above muted strings and muted horn.  The full orchestral response to Shéhérazade’s passionate outburst was startlingly powerful – offering a real, and unanticipated, sense of release – the more so for the almost uniformly subdued dynamic up to this point.

In ‘La Flûte enchantée’ (The enchanted flute), the flute’s love-song arabesques twined with grace and delicacy around the singer’s line, and Nyland skilfully used the narrow compass to convey the listening girl’s poignant bewitchment, both child-like and full of longing.  The opening phase of ‘L’Indifférent’ lies low, and the soprano injected a velvety quality which hinted at unspoken feeling; but the song darkened as the singer’s pleas remained unanswered by ‘the indifferent one’, his coolness and distance evoked by the unwavering implacability of the strings’ soft, unceasing crotchets.

In 2011, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was awarded the highest of French musical honours – the Victoires de la Musique Classique – for his Deutsche Grammophon recording (with Pierre Boulez and The Cleveland Orchestra) of Ravel’s two piano concertos, which was named ‘Best Recording of the Year’ (review).  So, Aimard’s arrival on the Festival Hall platform was greeted with great anticipation; but, while Aimard had the mastery and power to negotiate the technical challenges of the concerto – which was written in 1929-30 for the Viennese pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in WW1 – I did not feel that he entirely communicated either its poetry or explosiveness.

The Philharmonia, too, seemed to hold back; throughout the one-movement work the playing was impressively precise, and Salonen’s attention to detail superb, but, for my liking, the overall effect was rather too ‘polite’.  The opening was fittingly sombre, contrabassoon and double basses swelling from the depths, but at the first orchestral climax – with the entry of timpani and syncopated trumpet and trombone punching out the theme above rippling middle strings – the sound did not dazzle, as one might expect, after the preceding darkness.  The bright glare and scintillation of the brassy blast which crescendos into the soloist’s first entry should, one feels, spill over in the pianist’s imposing wide-spaced chordal cry.

Aimard’s subsequent extended solo passage rang resonantly, the bass hollow and vast, but I longed for a little more ‘heroism’ in the noble sway of the dotted rhythms; for Ravel intimates an incredible optimism as the main theme climbs defiantly higher, the harmonic twists suggesting both effort and boldness.  Following the orchestral consummation of this initial theme, Aimard’s pìu lento lament was elegant, if without that poignant touch of yearning regret, especially when the register rises and the textures assume a crystalline sparseness – though wistful melodies from the cor anglais, clarinet and bassoon spoke eloquently.

The accelerando into the martial Allegro was fairly measured, and while the ensuing ‘scherzo’ was vigorous, and marked by crisp woodwind and brass interjections of the pounding falling quavers which are first announced by three trumpets, I was not convinced that this was a real ‘devil’s dance’, spitting with vehemence and insolence.  Shouldn’t it sound like a march to ‘madness’?  Aimard certainly had the power to hammer out the driving quavers, but individual notes were not always sufficiently distinguished and emphasised through accentuation and weight.  That said, the higher lying oscillations had a refined clarity.  All credit, too, to the first bassoon whose first solo was penetrating and searching, reminding us of the pentatonic exoticism of Shéhérazade, and was answered confidently by the first trombone.

My misgivings were undoubtedly simply a question of personal preference and interpretation; there was no doubting Aimard’s, or the Philharmonia’s, commitment or assurance.  But, as the orchestra climbed climactically through the restatement of the piano’s opening episode, I wanted more wild abandon.  It came, perhaps, along with touching sincerity, in the turmoil of the astonishing piano cadenza with which the work concludes.

L’oiseau de feu (The Firebird), performed here in its complete 1910 version, was the first of Stravinsky’s ground-breaking pre-war ballet scores, commissioned by impresario Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes.  If his admiration of Rimsky-Korsakov had been an impetus in Ravel’s decision to turn his attention to the Arabian Nights myth, then the elder Russian composer – Stravinsky’s teacher – was also an indirect influence behind L’oiseau de feu (and a more direct one at times, in details such as the use of chromaticism for supernatural characters, or the string harmonic glissandi of the opening, for example).  For (as Caroline Potter’s informative programme article informed us), Rimsky-Korsakov had composed a one-act opera, Kaschchei the Immortal, in 1902 which, though related to the traditional Firebird legend, was incorporated in the scenario for Stravinsky’s ballet by Alexandre Benois and Mihkail Fokine.

And, as in Shéhérazade, Salonen sought clarity of texture and precision of rhythm and articulation, seeming to emphasise the ‘airiness’ of Stravinsky’s score, rather than its fire.  So, although the orchestra is gargantuan in proportion – with quadruple woodwinds, a huge brass section plus a seven-piece brass band on-stage, and an enormous percussion section including bells, xylophone, celesta, and piano, not to mention a huge string section – Salonen’s was not a Romantic, indulgent reading.  Instead, he aimed to use a modernist precision to cut through to the myth, and the players of the Philharmonia rose to the heights.  The ‘Dance of the Firebird’ fluttered impulsively and lustrously; the ‘Infernal Dance’ generated great excitement through its unpredictable phrasings and wealth of musical detail.

Taken out of its dance context, the score presents challenges to the listener, of narrative sequence as well as musical complexity.  But, in Salonen’s hands each episode was individually stylised, and emotions were kept in harness, numbers such as the ‘Round Dances’ and the ‘Lullaby’ sounding oddly piquant and potentially subversive.  Moreover, and impressively, the individual dances cohered to form a truly symphonic whole.  In this way, Salonen allowed us to view this Russian fairy-tale through an ever-changing orchestral kaleidoscope.  And, in the very final chord, rising from the most extreme of pianissimos to the most deafening tumult, Salonen at last gave us a searing blaze of incandescence.

Claire Seymour

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