Philosophical Dusapin and Superb Berlioz Makes Prom 7 One to Remember


United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2017 BBC Prom 7 – Jean‐Féry Rebel, Pascal Dusapin & Berlioz: Alisa Weilerstein (cello), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Joshua Weilerstein (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 19.7.2017. (GD)

Prom 7 CR_BBC Chris Christodoulou_3
Joshua Weilerstein (conductor) & Alisa Weilerstein (cello) perform Outscape with the BBCSO
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

JeanFéry Rebel Les élémens; Le cahos

Pascal Dusapin – Outscape (UK premiere)

Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

This was a piece of the most imaginative programming. Rebel was a musician at the court of Louis XIV and the piece tonight was taken from a ballet suite on the themes of natural chaos. The opening ostinato figure on high strings, with bitonal sharp figurations in the basses, certainly did sound peculiarly modern. Weilerstein had obviously rehearsed the BBC Symphony Orchestra with great care, with of course no vibrato and sharp double-stopping in the violins. In the programme Weilerstein explains how he wanted to couple this work with the wildness he sees in Berlioz’s famous symphony. Also there are elements, not so much of wildness, but of nature painting in the Dusapin work.

As Dusapin notes in the programme, he became fascinated with the word ‘Outscape’, for which there is no French equivalent. For him it denotes the forming of new directions, or ‘pathways’, both actual and psychologically. In this sense he wants to break down (deconstruct) the traditional notion of meaning as static (as in some conventional artworks) and replace this with ‘allegory’, which ruptures static ‘meaning’, to produce new ways of seeing – and with music – hearing, listening. So, in ‘Outscape’ we can see how the opening dark theme with cello and bass clarinet moves on and ‘becomes’ another theme which is passed on to other sections of the orchestra. There is never anything ‘static’ in Dusapin’s work. Even the quite long pp passages, mostly in low strings, are subtended by a crucial agitated energy, which flows into new formations, pointing, as the composer notes, to ‘new futures, new domains’. The more dramatic sections, with dominant brass and percussion, are always linked to past and future musical transformations. Initially Dusapin was inspired by a painting of an Icelandic iceberg – ‘its monumental stillness was open to all kinds of new movement’, also it became an idea for the ‘icy tremolos’ in the solo cello. But for Dusapin there is no one meaning in the ‘allegorical’ sense. It is constantly open to new themes and, consequently, meanings. In philosophical terms Dusapin wants to break from the rigid Kantian spatio-temporal model with its ‘static’ frame, and he sees music with its break from static time, as forming its own temporal and spatial register, as the ideal medium for becoming, and for new pathways into the future.

Weilerstein, having gone through Outscape with the composer, gave a rendition which was full of understanding, and articulation of Dusapin’s sound-scape. The opening cello theme (from his sister Alisa), was perfectly blended with the bass clarinet theme. Weilerstein had a perfect understanding of the work’s many contrasts and transformations, encompassing the full spectrum of the orchestration; the long ‘brooding’ sequences had an underlying intensity, linked to the more dramatic formations and leading to other tonal/harmonic constellations. And I have not heard the BBCSO play so superbly well since their time with Boulez.

It should be mentioned that Dusapin was influenced in his compositional conceptions and formations by the late French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who has been called the ‘philosopher of becoming’.

As a delightful encore Joshua, with violin, teamed up with his sister, on cello, for an arrangement of the ‘Transylvanian Dance’ from Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two violins.

At the outset, with opening Largo to Berlioz’s famous ‘Fantastic Symphony’, I sensed a note of blandness. But from the main Allegro on I warmed to the performance more and more. Weilerstein perfectly blended the sense of agitation in the Allegro with the accompanying operatic sounding recitatives, something a lot of quite famous conductors have trouble in articulating. The quite wild (in this performance) tutti fanfares at the movement’s coda, with dominant timpani and brass, never sounded like an ‘added on’ showpiece, as in many renditions, but always as part of the overall drama. The movement Ball, waltz, was all grace, charm and energy. But I do wish Weilerstein had deployed the cornets the composer asks for. The ‘Scene in the Country’ was measured but it never dragged, as with some more famous Berlioz ‘specialists’ of the recent past. The powerful bass recitatives and fff declamations towards the coda, were as arresting and sharp as I have heard, and the two sets of timpani were perfectly balanced in their rolls, denoting the dramatic violence to come. I thought Weilerstein could have taken the ‘March to the Scaffold’ at a slightly slower tempo, as indicated in the Allegretto non troppo but he managed to bring out all the exceptional orchestration (for the time), growling brass, gurgling bassoons, and virtuoso percussion, especially for the two timpani players. Also, I would have welcomed the composer’s repeat in this movement.

The ‘Dream of Sabbath Night’ was both sustained (in the Klemperer fashion) and dramatically inflected, sounding much more sinister than those conductors who treat it as an orchestral showpiece. The gloomy intonation of the Dies irae was compellingly matched with ominous sounding bells; there was never a tone of Grand Guignol here. It all ended with a powerful peroration of occult/diabolical themes, and a frenzied coda, where, through the ‘wildness,’ every orchestral/instrumental detail was audible.

Certainly a Prom to remember, not only for a superb ‘Fantastic Symphony’, but, with the Dusapin (who came onstage to acknowledge the applause), a musical/ philosophical event.

Geoff Diggines   

Leave a Comment