Thoughtful and Thought-Provoking Mozart from David Fray

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Debussy and Mozart: David Fray (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/Alain Altinoglu (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 18.2.2016. (CS)

Ravel: Suite, Ma mère l’Oye

Debussy: La Mer

Mozart: Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor K.491

Ravel: La Valse 

With his lanky physique, youthful looks, floppy long hair and hunched posture, the French pianist David Fray may – as several commentators have remarked – remind one of Glenn Gould and his legendary eccentricities.  Indeed, Fray – on this occasion, returning to the platform to deliver an encore when the Festival Hall audience were (almost) readying themselves for the final work on the programme – does at times seem to share the late Canadian pianist’s introspective self-possession/absorption.  But, Fray’s playing has a vigour and directness that is all the more remarkable for its understated manner of delivery.  This performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor combined poetic expression with intellectual argument, and demanded that its audience be alert to its freshness and drama.

Indeed, reflecting on this idiosyncratic but absolutely convincing performance, it seemed to me that Fray’s remark in the liner notes to his Virgin Classics recording of the composer’s Piano Concertos Nos.22 and 25 Virgin Classics/Fray – ‘With Mozart, nothing is as simple as it appears’ – was wonderfully apposite.  Every musical argument in this performance, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under French conductor Alain Altinoglu, was carefully considered but never laboured; the phrases were etched with clarity but never cold, smooth rather than chiselled.  In the Allegro the left hand might articulate dynamic runs while the right hand tempered the passion with a dash of sparkle.  At times the piano passages seemed to drift into reverie.  A single word that might capture Fray’s approach is ‘continuity’.  Just as his first entry seemed to emerge from inside the orchestra’s cadence, so the first movement cadenza progressed persuasively; the contrapuntal discourse had an admirable clarity, the left hand flourishes an un-showy power.  At the final cadence of the movement, the piano’s rising arpeggio seemed to disappear magically into the ether.

Altinoglu was happy to let Fray take the lead while taking pains to ensure that the Philharmonia Orchestra complemented the pianist’s arguments; crafting, for example, a suitable linearity in the statement of the Allegro’s angular opening material.  His instructions always crisp and clear, Altinoglu flexibly slipped between quadruple and duple meters.   The woodwind, in particular, were encouraged to engage in elegant dialogue with the soloist, and the Larghetto, which flowed fairly swiftly, was a feast of duets and trios – flute, oboe and bassoon (the latter also made an especially strong contribution to the Allegretto finale) all deserve acclaim.  This was real ‘chamber music’.  In the final movement the orchestra offered more rhetoric than the soloist; Fray always seemed to be keeping something from us, reserved if not restrained.  Sensibly, the tempo was not too fast; a march rather than a gallop.

When Fray performed this concerto at last season’s Proms, with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen, I remarked that I had found his interpretation ‘underwhelming. Every phrase was careful, thoughtful and beautiful; but Fray — seated on a standard RAH chair, rather than a piano stool, and his back bent alarmingly, so as to make one fear for the curvature of his spine — seemed to be playing to himself, rather than to Hall’. (See also Seen and Heard review by Colin Clarke – Ed.)  Perhaps I misjudged.  Or, maybe the acoustics and dimensions of the Albert Hall are not suited to the intimacy of Fray’s musical reflections.  On this occasion we enjoyed a thoughtful and thought-provoking performance in which the elegant grace of Classicism was imbued with a challenging ‘modern’ intensity.  The encore, a Busoni-transcription of a Chorale Prelude by J.S. Bach, was gentle of touch and gorgeous of tone; and played with the same unmannered, but communicative, austerity.

The French orchestral works which formed the rest of the programme did not quite reach the same heights.  This was the 40-year-old Altinoglu’s debut with the Philharmonia (he has recently taken up the musical directorship of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie), and conductor and orchestra seemed to have a formed a good initial rapport.  Altinoglu’s conducting offered unfussy, clear and jovial guidance.

Ravel’s Mother Goose suite allowed the Philharmonia to show off their strengths: delicate gentility from the upper strings; vibrant double bass pizzicatos; exoticism from the woodwind (spiced with foregrounded percussion, harp and celeste in the Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes); strong leadership from Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay whose solos were confident and crystal clear.  Les entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête danced fluently, and there was some lovely soulful string playing in Le jardin féerique, the climax of which shimmered vibrantly.  But it felt as if we were being told a story rather than taken on an adventure.

The forces of the Philharmonia may have swelled for Debussy’s La mer, but I still found this performance underwhelming.  Partly I think it was a matter of tempo; things felt too hurried – we needed more time to appreciate the water’s darkness and depth, and to immerse ourselves in the sonic waves which swell with dream-like intensity.  The details of the score were certainly illuminated brightly, but I’d have liked more freedom and fluidity, and for the climaxes to have built to more urgent frissons.  The shifting tempos of Jeux de vagues were expertly handled and the textures were rarefied, while the Dialogue du vent et de la mer allowed us to appreciate the trumpet’s strong contribution, as well as to ponder the ‘submerged’, latent power of the cellos and double basses.  Altinoglu created and sustained dramatic tension more successfully in this final movement.

In 1920 Ravel’s La Valse – termed by the composer, a ‘choreographic poem for orchestra’ – didn’t please impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who had commissioned the work, and he refused to stage it, complaining that ‘this is not a ballet; it is a portrait of a ballet, it is a painting of a ballet’.   Similarly, this performance just failed to sweep – or knock – us off our feet.  Ravel declared that he had ‘conceived of this work as a sort of apotheosis of the Viennese waltz, mingled with … the impression of a fantastic, fatal whirling’.  Despite fine playing, the joie de vivre was mild, and the closing bars – which should run amok in terrifyingly dizzy abandon – only hinted at the disturbing undertones which rock the festive surface.

Claire Seymour

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