Ravel, Stravinsky: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 20.2.2015 (PCG)
Ravel – Mother Goose: Suite
Piano Concerto in G
Stravinsky – The Firebird
It is pleasurable, but rare indeed, for a critic to encounter a concert performance which completely disarms criticism; but that was the case with this superb programme, which attracted a comparatively full house to St David’s Hall for an outing by the Philharmonia Orchestra under their principal conductor, which was quite simply an experience to die for.
The performance of Stravinsky’s complete Firebird ballet which occupied the whole of the second half began at quite a brisk pace, which initially raised fears that Esa-Pekka Salonen might find himself with nowhere else to go in the later sections of the score. But the players rose magnificently to the challenge, with a blistering rendition of the Infernal Dance which raised the roof with slashing opening chords that for once really filled the hall with sound. Trumpets placed behind and above the audience in the stalls added to the theatrical impact, and Salonen clearly sought to make this concert performance into a truly dramatic experience with every detail of Stravinsky’s score, closely allied to the stage action, given its full weight and precise measure. Unfortunately the elaborately produced programme book, designed for a whole series of programmes around the theme of Paris 1900-50 and copiously illustrated, gave only the most generalised scenario for the ballet – which will have meant that many of the listeners in the hall would not have appreciated the superbly responsive manner in which Salonen managed such passages as the swinging chord changes as Kaschei pronounces his spell which will turn the Prince to stone, or the startled reaction of the princesses as Ivan emerges to interrupt their dance with the golden apples.
The programme book also managed to give incorrect information regarding the Ravel Piano Concerto, advising the audience that they were going to hear the concerto for the left hand rather than that in G – although a provided four-page insert did provide a correction to this. In fact the orchestra (according to the programme book) had already given a performance of the concerto in London a week earlier with Mitsuko Uchida as the soloist, but here Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who, again according to the programme, had performed the left hand concerto the day before) gave a blistering performance of the two-handed work in which the jazzy elements in the outer movements were properly raunchy in places without being vulgar (as they can be when effects such as the trombone glissandi are over-emphasised). The sophisticated simplicity of the slow movement came across superbly too, with the interplay between the soloist and the woodwind players perfectly poised.
To open the concert we heard the suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose, which was not featured in the London performances by the orchestra. Again this had just the right sort of atmosphere, and the wanderings of Petit poucet were very nicely nuanced. During the conversation between Beauty and the Beast, the double bassoon solo was well forward in the balance as it should be; and although the final Jardin féerique was well below Ravel’s metronome mark in speed, it had all the sense of ecstatic repose that one could want. One’s sole criticism of the performance – and, indeed, of anything of the musical elements in this concert – was the substitution of a normal hammered glockenspiel for Ravel’s specified keyboard instrument, which meant perforce that the notes had to be altered and simplified to render them playable by a single player. (The number of harps in The Firebird was also reduced from the three specified in Stravinsky’s original version of the score to two, although I was not able to detect any difference in the sound since the instruments were forwardly placed in the orchestra.) A very minor defect indeed in a concert that was joy from beginning to end – and I make no apology for sounding gushing.
Paul Corfield Godfrey