United Kingdom Dukas, Saint-Saëns, Honegger & Debussy: Javier Perianes (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), , Royal Festival Hall, London, 20.4.2016 (CS)
Dukas: La Péri
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No.5 (‘Egyptian’)
Honegger: Pacific 231
On paper this concert seemed to be in search of a ‘unifying’ theme. Billed as ‘French Masterpieces’, it included music by Arthur Honegger, a Swiss composer who admittedly spent much of his life in Paris. The aural evocations of steam engines, Nile cruise boats and flights to enchanted gardens led the author of the accompanying programme notes, Stephen Johnson, to imagine the works as a celebration of a golden age of travel when ambitious engineers and entrepreneurs made it possible for the curious and cultured to enjoy remote and exotic worlds – though Debussy’s Images depicts a Spain that he never actually visited. No matter … for Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra showed us that it’s the journey which music makes into the heart and mind which really counts.
The first calling-point on our tour was the ‘Ends of the Earth’, where the mythic Iskender arrives after three years of journeying through Iran in search of the Flower of Immortality – as depicted by Paul Dukas in La Péri, the Poème dansé en un tableau which was commissioned by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1911.
Dukas’s ravishing score is the sort of multi-layered and finely textured musical canvas which brings out the best in Jurowski, who with skill and grace can illuminate every hue and grain without distorting the whole picture. An enlarged London Philharmonic Orchestra (triple woodwind, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, diverse percussion – including bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, and xylophone – 2 harps, celeste and an extravagant string section extending to eight double basses) explored all the permutations of the available kaleidoscopic palette.
The prefatory fanfare from the brass shone richly and with real zest. The contrast of the cool celeste and glowing horns; the voluptuous lilt of the cello section in full sway; the broad resonance of divided double basses; the wispy tendrils of the violins’ tremolos and tight trills; the flickering flutter-tonguing of the trumpets; the tingling of the xylophone; the sinuous wriggling of cor anglais and flute above harp, gentle timpani and delicate string pedals – all beguiled, and there was not a moment when the ear was not diverted and bewitched.
Jurowski was in full command of the complex temporal relationships and rhythmic wiliness. He may not have unleashed the full sensuality of the work but he had a sure sense of its narrative structure, and he revealed Dukas to be a musical story-teller to rival the Rimsky-Korsakov of the ‘Arabian Nights’.
Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto is nicknamed ‘The Egyptian’, in respect of its origins: the composer often sought refuge from the dull, cold Paris winters in warmer climes such as Algeria and the Canary islands, and he began the concerto while enjoying a tour down the Nile; the second movement Andante opens with a passage which includes a melody the composer professed to have ‘heard sung by the boatmen on the Nile when I was going downstream in a dahabeeyah’. Saint-Saëns roved quite widely in his geographical foraging, though; the mood is as much Spanish as it is Egyptian, and the Andante also has two solo passages whose idiosyncratic chord-spacings evoke the Javanese gamelan music which the composer heard performed at the 1889 Paris Exhibition – and which, ironically, he is said to have disparaged. Indeed, Saint-Saëns described the concerto as ‘a kind of voyage in the East, which sometimes goes as far as the Far East’.
Despite his own prodigious technical prowess as a pianist, Saint-Saëns did not indulge in overly flamboyant piano-writing, and his emphasis instead on coloristic effects and elegance makes this an ideal work for Spanish pianist, Javier Perianes, whose performance was unfailingly refined and discreet. There may be a lot of notes – indeed, the Molto allegro finale is so fiendish that it was for years a test piece at the Paris Conservatoire – but they tripped lightly from Perianes’s fingers. The Allegro animato was limpid and relaxed, though the soloist’s simple melodies sang with heart-warming candour and razor-sharp definition, and the dashing arrays of virtuosity burst forth like refreshing fountains of sparkling droplets.
Jurowski achieved a real integration of soloist and orchestra. There was some lovely playing in the Andante including subtle contributions from the clarinet and strong, well-shaped melodiousness from the cellos. Saint-Saëns suggested that the finale expressed ‘the joy of a sea-crossing, a joy that not everyone shares’. The rhythms certainly do totter and reel, but Jurowski was rock-steady. Similarly, the technical demands did not seem to bother Perianes whose virtuosity was equalled, even outweighed, by elegance. The Spanish pianist seems more interested in the poetry of the keyboard than in showmanship – an impression confirmed by a beautiful Grieg encore, which took us further north to cooler climes.
Of the three movements of Debussy’s Images, for this listener ‘Ibéria’ was the most enchanting: delicately perfumed and luminous of texture. In fact, Jurowski conveyed a cultural refinement which seemed more French than Spanish. The strings’ pizzicato might have had a sharper guitar-like twang, the clarinet solo could have sashayed with more seductive syncopation, and perhaps a touch of dreamy indolence would have strengthened the plaintive mood in ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’. However, the dance was dynamic and the clarity of ensemble achieved did allow solos to make their mark with easy elegance – viola and oboe duetted with long-breathed languor. After the wistful waverings of ‘Les parfums de la nuits’ – silvered by xylophone and celeste – the opening of ‘Le Matin d’un Jour de Fete’ was invigorated by a sense of emergent, joyous animation.
The lines of the opening movement, ‘Gigues’, were beautifully clean – aided by some silken flute-playing from Juliette Bausor – even in the most rhythmically animated passages, while the closing ‘Rondes de Printemps’ was alive with detail and irresistibly bright.
Honegger’s Pacific 231 was a tour de force of rhythmic interplay and symphonic muscle. One sensed not just the glorious power of the machine but also the strain of the mechanics; indeed, it is the latter which gives the former its sublimity. The concluding hiss and grind of brakes was wonderfully visceral. Jurowski’s command of this score was superlative. He is one of the few conductors whose left and right hands are truly independent: the left is never still – pointing, coaxing, fluttering, swirling – while the right frequently enacts a balletic ‘stirring’ gesture, which one might describe as a cross between the curl of a magician’s wand, the caress of a painter’s brush and the artful curve of a fisherman’s rod as he entraps his catch with a telling flick of a hook. It works perfectly. Honegger’s steam-train ride was pure musical onomatopoeia.