Evelyn Glennie on Scintillating Form in Michael Daugherty’s Percussion Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Fauré, Daugherty, Wiseman & Sibelius: Dame Evelyn Glennie (percussion), , Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Collon (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 14.6.2016. (CS)

Fauré: Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite

Daugherty: Dreamachine

Wiseman: Party Games

Sibelius: Symphony No.5

 Maurice Maeterlinck’s five-act play Pelléas et Mélisande has proved a magnet for composers: Debussy, Sibelius and Schoenberg among them.  Gabriel Fauré got there first, though, when he composed the incidental music for the work’s London premiere, which was given in English, in 1898.

This performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall didn’t quite capture the magic of Fauré’s shifting, modal-tinged harmonies and evocative instrumental textures. Conductor Nicholas Collon went for restraint rather than luminosity, and in the Prélude the strings initially sounded quite tentative, their tone lacking tender sweetness.  There was greater warmth in the dynamic surges but not the compelling ebb and flow which underpins Fauré’s structures.  I was surprised, too, that the fiddles used only a slight vibrato; the acoustic in the Cadogan Hall is fairly dry and as the platform cannot accommodate an extensive string section, players have to work hard in repertoire such as this to create the necessary richness of texture.  There were some delicate touches, however, and lead cellist, Jonathan Ayling, and first horn, Samuel Jacobs, shared a gentle, moving duet at the close, as Mélisande wandered through the forest, lost in melancholy.

Pizzicato strings, harp harmonics and the first violins’ meandering triplets provided a mobile, springy bed – evoking Mélisande’s spinning wheel – in Fileuse, above which the oboe (John Roberts) spun a beautiful thread.  The four horns convey the sense of promise that enters Mélisande’s heart, upon her first meeting with Pélleas; here, while the tone was golden and earnest, the intonation wasn’t spot on.  The well-known Sicilienne – written for a 1893 production of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, later published for cello and piano, and subsequently interpolated during the 1898 London production – was taken at a fairly swift tempo, the flute’s gentle melody flowing with an agile lilt accompanied by sparkling harp.  The tight dotted rhythms of the finale, Mort de Mélisande, might have had more muscularity and vigour but Collon did inject greater drama towards the close, although the grave intensity of Mélisande’s demise was not fully captured.  On this occasion, the work’s evocation of enigma itself proved elusive.

There was a considerable injection of excitement and energy, though, with the arrival of Dame Evelyn Glennie, to perform Michael Daugherty’s percussion concerto Dreamachines which the composer describes as ‘a tribute to the imagination of inventors who dream about new machines, both real and surreal’.  The front of the stage strewn with a panoply of different percussion instruments.  Glennie started stage-left, perched alertly behind her marimba, her crossed sticks hovering aloft like magician’s wands – and they did indeed conjure a spell.  In ‘Da Vinci’s Wings’, at times, Glennie really did seem to take flight, floating free of the orchestra on a slipstream to the heavens.  Elsewhere, her syncopated explosions of sound weaved in and out of the instrumental motifs, as she engaged with the pizzicato chattering or issued a rhythmic challenge to the wind.

In the second movement, ‘Rube Goldberg’s Variations’, Glennie – now stage-right – worked through a chain of hand-held instruments, her burbling, whirling, swishing, rustling and rattling evoking the Heath Robinson-esque contrivances of cartoonist/engineer Goldberg’s complicated contraptions. If you had ever wondered how many different sounds a tambourine could make, then Glennie answered the question – it’s many more than you imagined!  There were strong solos from cor anglais (Timothy Watts) and bass clarinet (Katy Ayling) and the smoochy solo played by trumpeter James Fountain whisked us briefly to a Prohibition-era speakeasy on a hot summer’s night.  Just when it seemed the very air was fizzing and crackling, Glennie silenced the show with the sharp clack of a wooden clapper.

In ‘Electric Eel’, from the vibraphone’s dark, pulsing surges – whale music indeed – exploded atonal clusters, like detonations of dazzling light. The final movement, ‘Vulcan’s Forge – a reference, characteristically wry, both to the Roman god of fire and to Star Trek’s Mr Spock – initiated a propelling march for the snare drum, which grew into a frenzy of rhythmic invention.  Clear screens separated Glennie from the first violins but the ear-splitting power of the feverish beat was too much for some of the players, whose hands offered further protection for their ear-drums.  Inevitably, the RPO couldn’t match Glennie for bite and bravura – she played with the intensity and fire of a woman possessed.  But, they gave Daugherty’s challenging score a committed reading, led by Collon’s unwaveringly clear, precise and watchful beat.

The programme included a built-in ‘encore’ in the form of Debbie Wiseman’s Party Games, which was originally composed as a solo marimba piece for Glennie’s 50th birthday and had been premiered by the percussionist and the RPO the week before at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Wiseman’s score is inventive and Glennie was able to summon up a parade of pianistic colours and textures during its short time-span.

After the exploits and demands posed by these two percussion works, the RPO must have been relieved to be on more familiar – though no less musically thought-provoking and challenging – territory after the interval. Sadly, their performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony No.5 fell a bit flat; possibly they were drained by Dreamachines’ relentless wrestling with driving dynamisms. Moreover, they weren’t aided by the dryness of the Hall.  And, perhaps aware of the difficulties, Collon kept his foot on the pedal; understandable, but at the expense of the work’s expansiveness. The details didn’t really have time or space to breathe and the searching quality of this late-Romantic masterpiece was missing.  The result was that the climactic statement of the final movement’s ‘swan theme’ – inspired when Sibelius glimpsed of a flock of swans soaring upwards over Lake Järvenpää – with its ecstatically swinging arcs, lacked the desirable air and bloom.  That said, the players worked hard and, in places, with fine results.

Claire Seymour


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