BBC National Orchestra of Wales Explores Theme of Creation

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Rebel, Ravel, Milhaud, Sibelius, Ginastera:  Gweneth-Ann Jeffers (soprano), Zhang Zuo (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Stefan Asbury (conductor). Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff. 21.4.2015 (PCG)

Jean-Féry Rebel – Les élemens: Chaos (1737)
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G minor
Milhaud – La création du monde
Sibelius – Luonnotar
Ginastera – Popol Vuh


Following on from their concert last Saturday, BBC NoW presented a second programme of pieces inspired by the theme of ‘creation’ which will culminate in two weeks with a performance of Haydn’s oratorio of that title. Actually only four of the pieces here reflected the theme, with the Ravel concerto sandwiched rather uncomfortably into the mix. But it was nevertheless an interesting programme, and one welcomes the spread of the idea of ‘themed concerts’ which can often result in the rediscovery of some unduly neglected scores.

The opening of Rebel’s Chaos is a truly extraordinary baroque statement. While Haydn’s Repesentation of Chaos in The Creation has been mocked for its depiction of the state through an “extremely unchaotic fugue”, Rebel starts his movement with chaos absolute in the shape of a tone cluster that anticipates the twentieth century and comprehensively trumps Haydn’s nervously disjointed piece. It was not helped here, however, by the employment of a full string force; this tended to drown out the flute counterpoint, which only gradually emerged at the movement progressed. Nonetheless this is even today a startling piece, which deserved its place in the programme.

The choice of the Ravel on the other hand was doubly peculiar, not only because it did not seem to fit into the rest of the programme, but also because this was the second time the work had been heard in a major Cardiff venue in just two months. And it has to be said that the Philharmonia under Salonen with the experienced Pierre-Laurent Aimard on 20 February, which I reviewed for this site, found much more in the score than the BBC Young Generation artist Zhang Zou featured here. Her playing was thoroughly assured, but the sheer joie de vivre of Aimard was lacking; the first movement was simply not cheeky enough, and the jazz elements were comparatively subdued, in the orchestra as well as the solo part. The Adagio assai moved forward purposefully, but the desirable sense of withdrawal and repose was not achieved; and in the later stages of the movement the interplay between the piano and cor anglais was not ideal, the former often forging ahead rather than seeming to react to the orchestral soloist. Only the reckless and raucous finale really connected as it should. It was a good performance; but the best is the enemy of the good, and the best was really a very recent memory in this concerto. Oddly enough Milhaud’s use of jazz elements in La création du monde sounded less laid back than Ravel’s, not really shedding its inhibitions in the same way until half-way through. But from that point onwards the chamber orchestra really seemed to enjoy themselves more, and showed the right balance between jazz and neo-classicism that makes the work so distinctive even if it now sounds slightly ‘dated’ – although Milhaud can hardly be blamed for the fact that some of his cadences in the final section later became dance-band clichés.

After the interval we had a rare chance to encounter Sibelius’s tone-poem Luonnotar, the rarity of whose appearances in the concert hall can only be explained by the extreme difficulty of finding a singer capable of tackling the solo vocal part. Although written for much of the time in the lower part of the soprano voice, it rises at three points to a high C-flat, and one of those is not only inconsiderately marked pianissimo but is then even more cruelly refined by a demand for diminuendo. Gweneth-Ann Jeffers has solid Wagnerian credentials, but managed to fine her tone down when required not only to pianissimo but even further without any sense of strain; her rapture in the final bars was palpable. A black mark to the BBC for failing to provide the Finnish text or translation in the programme, without which the subtle shades of meaning in Sibelius’s score are diminished; but nonetheless this was a very beautiful performance indeed.

Pianissimi were in decidedly short supply in Ginastera’s Popol Vuh, a work left incomplete at the composer’s death. If Luonnotar is a rarity in the concert hall, the music of Ginastera is even more so; and that which I have encountered over the years suggests that the composer led a positively schizophrenic career, veering between a raucous Argentinian national style and strict Schoenbergian twelve-tone writing. Popol Vuh combined both these elements, in a manner which suggests that the composer may have been seeking a personal synthesis at the time of his death (he spent over twenty years considering his treatment of the subject). The atmospheric opening is haunted and mysterious, with excruciatingly loud interruptions which sudden acquire Latin American rhythms marked with thundering percussion. The results were interesting, although it was not always possible to link the illustrative music to the purported programme which underlay it. Lesley Hatfield injected a note of expression into her solo which (I think) was intended to depict the creation of human life. The performance as a whole seemed to be very fine, especially when one considers the amount of aleatory music involved with the conductor reduced to the role of a policeman directing the orchestral traffic. The end revealed a climax so spectacularly overblown that one was left wondering what Ginastera could possibly have done to round it off in his missing last movement. The orchestra has recorded the work for Naxos, and the live broadcast can be accessed through the BBC i-player for thirty days.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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