New York Phil Takes London by Storm

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ravel, Richard Strauss: Joyce DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Alan Gilbert (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 17.4.2015 (GD)

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Nyx  (UK Premiere)
Ravel:  Shéhérazade – Trois poèmes
Valses nobles et Sentimentales
Richard Strauss  Der Rosenkavalier Suite


This was the first concert in a four concert Barbican Hall residency, also including a CONTACT event, and a matinee for young persons. Esa Pekka Salonen’s Nyx has alrerady been recorded by Salonen himself and performed  in France (Theatre du Chatalet in Paris), and in Finland for Finnish Radio. There is nothing particularly innovative or radical about it; it being quite conventional in terms of its traditional tonality, one could argue that it looks back, rather than forward, with its huge orchestra redolent of Strauss and Mahler. But having said that it is a hugely enjoyable work, especially as played by the superb New York Philharmonic. Toscanini’s one time orchestra gave it the ‘works’ so to speak.

 The piece is inspired by Greek mythology with Nyx as the ‘shadowy figure’ of ‘dark stuff’ and Chaos as the primordial forces that brought the Earth into being. This is no doubt connected to all manner of Dionysian myths of chaos and destructive drives translating into the ‘sorcery’ of Dionysian music and the ‘jouissance’ of erotic transgression –  all mythological themes which so fascinated Nietzsche. But despite this, or maybe because of this, Salonen’s 20 minute piece does not project a particularly dark or menacing soundscape despite its array of percussion and multiple passages of percussive ostinati. The strong rhythmic patterns here, as in Carl Nielsen, seem more life-affirming. But Nyx is also a work of contrast. The most staggering tutti sections are most skilfully contrasted with more delicate and light textures.

 Interestingly in the programme notes Salonen talks of a more ‘chiaroscuro’ orchestral soundscape projecting a mood, or ‘Stimmung’ in which there are no ‘blacks and whites’, but an endless ‘variety of half-shades’; a musical terrain where absolute, or foundational truths play no part. As implied, I can’t imagine Nyx receiving a more compelling rendition from both orchestra and conductor. This was big orchestra virtuosity which, however, never became anything like a mere orchestral show-case. Salonen’s orchestral invention contains some really thought-provoking content.  Throughout the concert Gibert wisely deployed antiphonal violins which greatly enhanced the clarity of detail in this and in the Ravel works.

 Together with  Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and Debussy’s Baudelaire and Villon song settings, Ravel’s Shéhérazade is the greatest song cycle of any French composer. Ravel chose just three  from the hundred Oriental poems of his friend Tristan Klingsor (the Wagnerian pen name of Léon Leclère).  Ravel had originally intended composing an opera around oriental themes based on  Shéhérazade ‘s stories. In the 19th century, and especially after the traumatic defeat of France in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian War, there was a tremendous interest in Oriental themes from a cultural-artistic perspective. Think of writers like Flaubert and Gide, and painters like Delacroix and Ingres. Also there was  an upsurge in the anthropological and scientific study of Orientalism with institutions like the ‘Group Coloniale’ founded in 1892.   Indeed, Edward Said has argued that this enormous interest/focus was really more of a sublimation of defeat through the prism of an imaginary exotic which saw distant lands and strange, bizarre customs as arousing a desire to explore/expand existing colonies and to create new domains of colonial domination – a kind of Freudian transference of shame in defeat on to an imaginary other. But why imaginary when France in reality did rule domains like Algeria and Moroco? Said’s point here is that the imperialist mind can only perceive the ‘other’ through Western eyes, through its own imagination. The ‘other’ has no reality outside of this Occidental focus. The question here is: does this Westerrn/French perception pertain to Ravel’s  beautiful song cycle? It certainly does in Klingsor’s poems, and by association in Ravel’s music. But Klingsor, who was at best a keen dilettante, is not remembered for his Orientalism but for his association with Ravel.  At the time (1903) there was certainly nothing odd about a composer deploying Oriental themes and Ravel’s score, for its superbly nuanced and subtle orchestration alone, transcends any such associations.

 Joyce DiDonato’s opening ‘Asie,Asie I found a bit too full-throated, as though she was singing in an Handelian oratorio. This needs much more of an interplay between exotic sotto voce and mezzo tone. Here French singers come into their own from the classic Suzane Danco and Regina Crespin to the more recent but superb Veronique Gens. Gilbert coaxed some wonderfully finessed tones from the New York orchestra. Ravel uses a large orchestra here but nothing rises above a single forte. There are, as is often mentioned, strains of Rimsky Korsakov, especially his magnificent Sheherazade, one of Ravel’s inspirations, but also, as mentioned by tonight’s programme note writer, the recurring distant horn-call is redolent of Wagner. Orchestral ‘colour’ is often associated with Ravel’s invention, but his orchestration is also wonderful at evoking different moods: the subtle eroticism intoned by shimmering cascades in strings in La flûte enchantée; and the languid sense of exotic and erotic ambiguity in the woodwind and pp lower strings in the last song L’indifférent.  Orientalism in Said’s sense runs through the whole poem but is particularly resonant in the first song ‘Asie’,  in which Klingsor, writing of Persia, sees ‘turbans of silk above black faces with gleaming teeth’ – a kind of descriptive and overdetermined objectification. DiDonato throughout coped quite well with the French language, it was always clear, although at times lacking that peculiarly French/Gallic tonal inflection; perhaps only French singers can intone this. But this sounds very controversial! Overall it was a great pleasure to listen to this unique music especially from the superb tones/articulations of Toscanini’s old orchestra.

 As an encore DiDonato gave us a distinctive rendition of Richard Strauss’s ‘Morgen’ from his Op. 29, No. 4. This was quite nice but for me Strauss’s  rather contrived and sentimental tones did not blend well with the ravishing, innovative beauty of the preceding Ravel.

 Gilbert and the orchestra next gave a virtuoso performance of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, the title  of which is an obvious homage to Schubert’s piano pieces of the same name. Ravel originally wrote this for piano, but later orchestrated in 1912 for a ballet score which never took off. Despite its prevailing rhythmic, full orchestra thrust (the opening sharp forte  gauche dance rhythms causing shock for the original audience) it is mediated by much more subtle orchestral detail in the interplay between woodwind and strings and in the countermelodies that surge apparently from nowhere. It is one of the composer’s most difficult works to bring off, not least because of the numerous passages of rubato. In the epilogue the waltz themes become distant reveries with the sense that all must cohere into one mood or as one commentator put it; ‘nostalgia without incoherence, sentiment without sentimentality’. Overall this was a good performance, although Gilbert didn’t always manage the subtle dynamics, rubato and idiomatic empathy as heard with conductors like Martinon, Boulez or Dutoit. Again,and despite these reservations, it was the superb playing of the New York orchestra that shone out here.

 As with the above mentioned Strauss song encore, the opening of  the Rosenkavalier Suite, with its blaring priapic horns and over-orchestrated stomping rhythms just didn’t blend well with the eloquent coda of the Ravel. Obviously there was a logic between the Strauss and the Valses nobles et sentimentales‘ as both projected waltz themes. But whereas in the Ravel the waltz is re-cast, re-worked , almost deconstructed into something far more dramatic and complex, in the Strauss the waltz themes are covered in cloying schmaltz and onomatopoeic banality. When Klemperer was asked why he didn’t perform Rosenkavalier he replied, ‘I do not conduct ‘sugar-water’. I am with Klemperer on this. But predictably it was superbly played,  Gilbert conducting it with real flare and élan. It wasn’t Viennese in the Clemens Krauss manner, but after reading several Strauss biographies, it seems that he didn’t particularly care in what idiom or style it was played, or where it was played, so long as it sold well! But one thing was clear: the  audience tonight loved it.

 As an encore Gilbert played the great waltz from Act One of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. He took all the repeats and predictably it was well played, but at times it all sounded a tad ‘four square’. It certainly lacked the lilt, charm and elegance Monteux used to bring to it.

 As a kind of ‘extra’ quasi encore the orchestra’s quintet of brass (without Gilbert) gave us a 20’s/30’s Jazz number – and what playing this was – as though trained by Duke Ellington! It reminded me of the opening sound-tracks of  black and white ‘film noir’ vintage, with Manhattan as a mise-en-scène backdrop, but they were probably later 40s stuff. Yet who cares about pedantic dates when the tone of Benjamin’s Profane illumination is so resonant!


Geoff Diggines