France Festival d’Aix-en-Provence  – Stravinsky, Schubert, and Beethoven: Orchestre de Paris / Duncan Ward (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix, 12.7.2017. (MB)
Stravinsky: Suite no.1 for small orchestra; Suite no.2 for small orchestra
Schubert: Symphony no.3 in D major, D 200
Beethoven: Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
This year’s Aix Festival has a ‘Stravinsky cycle’ of concerts to accompany its excellent Rake’s Progress. I am delighted to report that the two small Suites for small orchestra received splendid performances. Alas, the problem lay with the remaining ninety per cent of the programme; would that we had had more – much more – Stravinsky instead.
Perhaps not entirely unlike some of Schoenberg’s later tonal works, these little Stravinsky Suites offer an excellent introduction to Stravinsky’s processes without the ‘difficulties’ some may find in some of his music. Such was emphatically the case here; bite-sized the pieces may be, but they emerged as echt Stravinsky. The Orchestre de Paris imparted a pleasingly ‘French’ sound, suggesting kinship with Ravel, that was anything but inappropriate, although the particular colours were entirely Stravinsky’s own. In the ‘Española’ of the First Suite – and certainly not only there – rhythms proved tight and generative, even menacing. The Soldier’s Tale came to mind, but so, inevitably, did Petrushka, especially in the Second Suite. Stravinsky here sounded truly in puppeteer mode – although is he not always, in one sense or another? My only real cavil was Duncan Ward’s extreme holding back in the ‘Valse’. Parody is fine, up to a point, but that seemed too much for the material and its context. Otherwise, these were sparkling, colourful, delightful performances.
Schubert’s Third Symphony started promisingly. The introduction to the first movement sounded properly generative, very much in the line of Haydn, albeit with an intriguing, almost Mendelssohnian lightness to the sound. (It is not how I immediately think of Schubert, but it is surely a good thing to be challenged.) Alas, the rest of the first movement was hard-driven: more Rossini than Beethoven (or Schubert!) It was beautifully played by the Orchestre de Paris: actually one of the best performances I have heard from them, in purely orchestral terms. Moreover, there was nothing unduly distracting. Nevertheless, the formal dynamism that makes sonata form a form rather than a mould or even a mere structure was absent, save, perplexingly, for a darkly serious development section. It is a common problem in much of today’s symphonic conducting, yet no less grievous for that. (Memories of Daniel Barenboim’s outstanding recent Berlin performance will die hard.) Structure and form are not the same things; at least, they should not be. There was winning intimacy to be heard from the Paris players in the Allegretto, but it emerged as an unduly sectional movement, whatever its very real incidental charms. The Minuet gained from being taken straightforwardly, but the Trio never settled; likewise a charming enough finale. What was truly missing, here and throughout, was a sense of harmonic rhythm, of much of the music being founded upon the bass line, curiously underplayed. Schubert’s music is not merely a string of melodies; nor is any music that is worth performing from the Austro-German tradition in which it stands.
Beethoven’s is certainly not, but yet again that was how it sounded. Ward’s direction of the Fourth Symphony was, for the most part, mercifully free of the perversities that characterise, say, the Beethoven of his mentor, Simon Rattle – so much so as to make it frankly unlistenable. That excellent omission, however, was alas pretty much the only positive aspect to the performance here: again, very well played, on its own terms, but quite uncomprehending of how Beethoven’s music works, let alone of what it might mean. The first movement, from the Introduction onwards, was taken very fast: nothing in principle wrong with that, but it never yielded, never breathed, and never actually spoke of, let alone in, sonata form and its processes. Ironically, there was more than a hint, both here and in the Schubert, of sub-Stravinskian parody. The slow – not at all slow – movement flowed by pleasantly enough; yet again, however, it seemed at best observed rather than lived, its existence entirely on the surface. Prolonged, extreme pianissimi were presumably intended to create tension; they ended up merely sounding weird. As the movement progressed, or regressed, it sounded more and more disconnected. This, at least, seemed very much in the line of Rattle’s Beethoven; the scherzo and finale behaved similarly, albeit in less pulled-around fashion. Ultimately, it was just all rather dull; I was never moved, never even interested. There were incidental orchestral ‘beauties’, but surely that is not what Beethoven is about? If it is, then God help us all. A pity we could not have heard, say, Petrushka instead.