United Kingdom Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky: New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 19.4.2015 (AS)
Bartók: The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite
Stravinsky: Petrushka (1911 version)
For the second of two concerts as part of its five-day Barbican International Associate Residency the New York Philharmonic presented what promised to be an attractive programme of great ballet scores of the early twentieth century.
There was a time when Jeux was felt to show a falling-off in Debussy’s creative powers as a composer, but for some years now it has been recognised as the culminating masterpiece of the composer’s orchestral output. Its somewhat fragmentary and fluid nature means that a conductor needs to have a clear overall view of the work and to be able to draw its continual restless changes of pulse phrase together in such a fashion as to convey a sense of wholeness. Alan Gilbert managed this difficult task effectively. His was a slightly more hard-edged, emphatic approach to the score than we often hear: some of its dream-like quality was lost in favour of tougher rhythmic drive, but such an approach is surely valid, given the work’s origin as a ballet score.
Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin certainly needs plenty of drive, for it calls for a degree of blatant rhythmic violence in performance that is only perhaps rivalled by the demands of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. At its outset the violins ignite the work with an emphatic repeated see-saw rhythm, or at least they should: in this case the effect was rather lost in an indefinite blur. But soon the performance picked up, and Gilbert delivered a taut, dramatic account of the suite, with some notable woodwind solos in its less frenetic but still vividly dramatic sections. Best of all, Gilbert resisted the temptation to show off the virtuosity of his orchestra by setting too fast a tempo for the final chase, which can develop into mere hectic noise if this is allowed to happen. On this occasion Gilbert’s sharp, incisive conducting enabled the tension to grow inexorably up to the final explosive chords.
To hear this fine orchestra play the 1911 version of Petrushka seemed like a rare treat in store. It was certainly true that to a degree we heard a dramatic and wonderfully played account of Stravinsky’s original, extravagantly scored version of his youthful masterpiece. And it was also true that most of the audience enjoyed the visual (and sometimes audio) entertainment that went with it. This was provided by a New York production company named Giants Are Small, directed by the visual artist Doug Fitch. The title alludes to the company’s use of puppets, whose animations at the front of the orchestra were in this case projected on to a screen overhanging the orchestra. There were also some film interludes, and the cameras sometimes alighted on playing members of the orchestra, who were comically dressed up for the occasion. Before the performance the audience was asked to rehearse a scream, which they would repeat on a cue by the conductor at the Peasant with a Bear episode in the last tableau, represented here by actors. The conductor entered into the spirit of things by acting as the magician and leaving the stage while his orchestra was still playing the final episode of Petrushka’s Ghost. There were many other diversions – audience clapping, shouts from the actors and so on. The whole entertainment was in the nature of a pantomime, played for laughs. No doubt the children who had attended a special performance that afternoon loved it all, as did the evening’s adult audience, to judge from the response during and after the performance.
So that’s all that needs to be said – or is it? Firstly the story of Petrushka is essentially a tragedy, not one that should be turned into a light-hearted, amusing spectacle. Secondly, this was neither a concert performance nor a proper stage performance, but an uneasy compromise. Thirdly, as a result of this compromise the performance of the music was thrust into the background behind the glitzy goings on at the front of the stage.
If such an entertainment was needed, any decent London orchestra could have provided an appropriate musical background. But some of us had come to hear a great American orchestra play a great, colourful orchestral score, and a rare opportunity such as this was frustratingly impaired.