United Kingdom Fauré, Lindberg, Ravel, Debussy; Christian Tetzlaff (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor), Royal Festival Hal, London, 11.11.2015. (GD)
Fauré: Pelléas and Mélisande Suite
Magnus Lindberg: Violin Concerto No.1
Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales
Debussy: La mer
Lindberg’s Violin Concerto deploys a classical orchestra, which Mozart would have known. It unfolds as one continuous structure, but its three sections are easily discernible. Throughout the sololist is engaged in a conversation with the concerto’s many configurations – juxtaposing string cascades. multiple instrumental/solo cross-overs, the semblance of melodies shot-through with myriad inventions of quasi counterpoint – again mostly worked out in the strings. I like the programme-note writer’s comment: ‘…the solo line is supported by a gossamer carpet of strings…’. Indeed the strings form a kind of auratic ‘glow’ especially in the first section; the agile and delicate dance rhythms(a haunting filigree of tonal modulations) here almost reminded me of some of Mozart’s later inventions which hover between graceful dance associations and more ambiguous (darker) resonances. The last movement of the last Piano Concerto K 595, and the concluding movement of the sublime Clarinet Concero K622 come to mind. But there is also a sense of a Sibelian soundscaping, when the music becomes imbued with more static harmonies, and a vibrant figure for horns takes us into scenic hunting territory also known to Mozart. But it could equally be read as a quasi Sibelian piece of nature painting (think of the shifting horn harmonies in opening of the Fifth Symphony). The solo extended cadenza, leading us into the last section, sounded as difficult to play as anything in Shostakovich or Bartók. But Tetzleff managed it with almost super-human virtuosity – a virtuosity which never became virtuosic for its own sake. The brief, but diverse final section takes on the rhythms of a saltarello. The mood here is light and rhythmic, developing into a more forcefully ‘syncopated’ march-like section, with overlapping relays between orchestra and soloist. The tempo expands into a resounding and jubilant coda, again shot through with Sibelian nature soundscaping. As would be expected, with Lindberg as the LPO’s Composer in Residence, the orchestra responded magnificently to this captivating concerto. Also Ticciati seemed to just let the music play, without any conductorial interventions. And I can’t imagine a better advocate than Tetzlaff, who played with total commitment.
The concert was billed as ‘Evocative French Favourites’. And although the Lindberg concerto deserves to be played as much as possible, I think I would have preferred to hear it with other Finnish composers – Sibelius of course. But also those not so much played in London; Kaija Saariaho and Aulis Sallinen come to mind, but there are many others. Of course the concerto would match well in a more traditional programme, and I suggested ‘other Finnish composers’ more in the sense of contextual comparison. The French tone of tonight’s concert made for quite short measure. Debussy’s wonderfully evocative ‘Jeux’ after the Fauré would have broadened the French complement. Also a work like ‘Jeux’ would have complimented the delicate, ‘gossamer’ textures of the Lindberg concerto in a more informed manner.
Ticciati conducted a quite straight forward account of Faure’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande of 1898. The later suit was orchestrated by Faure’s disciple Charles Koechlin, at the composer’s request. The opening ‘Prelude’, a kind musical depiction of the ghostly and delicate Mélisande lost in an ‘allegorical’ forest, and confronted with the gauche prince Golaud, lacked the finesse and delicacy of phrasing and articulation found with a conductor like Michel Plasson and the Orchestre du Capitol de Toulouse. Here everything was too bland and perfunctory. The following ‘La Fileuse’, with ‘running string figures’ depicting Mélisande’s spinning wheel despite some fine oboe playing, again struck a rather bland note at odds with the ‘auratic’ mystery of the music. ‘Sicilienne’ with delicate flute and harp melodies – at the fountain where Mélisande loses her ring, again was nicely played but didn’t really reach that tone of what Walter Benjamin called ‘profane illumination’ – an illumination enveloped in myth and allegory, later understood by Debussy with stunning insight. The concluding ‘La Mort de Mélisande with its haunting ‘funeral rhythms, was more successfully contoured but still lacked that veiled sense of allegory and mystery so essential to an understanding of Maeterlinck’s play.
Ticciati 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 counter-melodies 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 with the LPO on top form, although Ticciati didn’t always manage the subtle dynamics, rubato and idiomatic empathy as heard with conductors like Martinon, Boulez or Dutoit.
Throughout La mer Ticciati seemed to concentrate predominantly on lushness and vivid orchestral colour, often at the expense of the more subtle textures and harmonies. Examples of this were to be heard in the coda of the first movement ‘From Dawn to Midday on the Sea’, where the blazing chorale climax certainly made its effect, but I didn’t have the sense of it emerging seamlessly from the movement’s inner harmonic/textural structure. Similarly, the second movement, ‘Games of the Waves’ had plenty of thrust, sounding at times more like something out of a score by Richard Strauss, but still lacking that sense of being an intricate filigree of tonal cascades and interweaving melodies heard in performances from Toscanini and Boulez. Both Toscanini and Boulez (one could also mention Reiner here) were, are masters of transition, articulation of transitions – a sine qua non in this score. But with Ticciati there was often a sense of sectionalisation, a lack of symphonic coherence. And it is important to remember that Debussy entitled La mer as ‘Symphonic sketches’. I recently listened to Toscanini’s 1942 Philadelphia recording of La mer.What an incredible sense of forward flow Toscanini achieves in the second movement; one can almost smell the sea-salt here! The lead up to the movement’s climax is enhanced by the Italian maestro’s sense of a real crescendo, not just by becoming louder – as with Ticciati – but informed by a mounting intensity. And fine as the LPO’s strings are, they are simply not the equal of Toscanini’s Philadelphia sound in 1942. The climax and coda of the third movement ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’ although impressive in a visceral sense, sounded rather like an extract from a Wagner music drama, and to my ears the concluding ostinato rhythms were indistinct, more a wash of lush sound. Again, with Toscanini (in all his recordings of La mer) and Boulez, the coda is imbued with an almost cosmic clarity and intensity, the ostinato rhythms coming over as clear as the sun-rise of a dawn sea horizon.