Elder and the Hallé Breathe New Life into Old Warhorses

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Debussy, Mussorgsky/Ravel: Sergio Castello-Lopez (clarinet), Hallé Orchestra / Sir Mark Elder (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 1.11.2017. (PCG)

Ravel – Rapsodie espagnoleBoléro
Debussy – Rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra
Mussorgsky (orch. Ravel) – Pictures at an Exhibition

The visits to Cardiff by Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra always form a welcome highlight of the St David’s Hall ‘International Concert Season’, and this programme was no exception. The focus of the evening was on Maurice Ravel’s expertise as an orchestral colourist, and a most interesting and sometimes surprising series of contrasts it was too. Ravel and Debussy are always handily linked together under the impressionist label, highlighting the parallels between their music and the French painters of the period; but while Debussy’s originality and emphasis lay in the fields of harmony, Ravel focused upon the subtle blending of orchestral colours to produce one magical effect after another. This was especially noticeable in his Rapsodie espagnole which opened the evening, a series of dusk-veiled portraits of the Spanish landscape and atmosphere. Like Ravel’s La Valse in its evocation of Vienna, it seeks to capture the rhythms of the Iberian peninsula without ever really developing into an actual imitation. The avoidance of fully-formed melodic profile in the music suggests the half-light exquisitely, although there was also plenty of verve from the large orchestral forces (seven players in the percussion department) in the closing pages.

The first half of the programme ended by contrast with Ravel’s ubiquitous Boléro, which served to demonstrate that Ravel could turn out a memorable theme without turning a hair, when he wanted to. But here Mark Elder, treating the balletic score with more respect than a more blatantly theatrical approach might have done, continued to illustrate Ravel’s remarkable contrasts of orchestral colour, with the playing of the theme by the oboe d’amore particularly sensitively done. What also contributed to the impact was the relentless crescendo during the latter half of the score, the sense of overwhelming physical rhythmic assault on the senses, which recordings of the score inevitably fail to capture. This performance made one listen to the old warhorse with fresh ears, and was all the more welcome for that.

Another old warhorse followed the interval in the shape of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition. The conductor supplied a spoken introduction, in which he laid emphasis on the small-scale nature of Hartmann’s original drawings and designs and the incredible degree to which the composer expanded these into his series of miniature tone-poems. He then proceeded to give us an imaginative reconstruction of Ravel’s orchestration, bringing out many subtleties that can often be glossed over in a more blatantly cinematic performance. In the final Great Gate of Kiev, complete with an impressive church bell instead of the usual tubular imitation, he brought out the subtle cross-rhythms of the final pages in a manner that I have never heard so clearly delivered before. The playing of the alto saxophone in The Old Castle was similarly (although more quietly) mesmerising, precisely balanced and plangently delivered; it was a pity that the player was not identified in the programme (Ravel’s score decidedly oddly provides for the solo to be taken by the player of the second oboe). And a similar regret should be expressed on behalf of the tenor tuba in Bydlo (as usual, the solo was taken by a player separate from the bass tuba in the rest of the work, although Ravel does not actually specify that this should be done). Elder kept the music on the move, with none of the sense of grandiose bombast than can sometimes afflict Samuel Goldenberg; the following trumpet imitation of Schmuyle was then delivered with brilliance and character. Baba Yaga’s Hut on Fowl’s Legs strutted with a real sense of menace, and the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks was scintillatingly precise. There has been a tendency in recent years to denigrate Ravel’s instrumentation (and occasional modification of Mussorgsky’s original) in favour of one or another of the many orchestral treatments that have supposedly adhered more closely to the piano version of the score; but here one admired again Ravel’s skill in finding exactly the right orchestral colours for each and every phrase, even when he was employing instruments such as the celesta and xylophone which Mussorgsky himself would never have recognised. The audience quite rightly cheered the players, and the conductor, to the rafters.

The presence of three such substantial orchestral works on the programme left little room for a concerto, so instead we heard Debussy’s rarely heard orchestration of his Clarinet Rhapsody originally written as a competition piece and more generally heard in its original form for clarinet and piano. It made a pleasant if somewhat lightweight contrast to the more heavily scored works which surrounded it. The playing of the orchestra’s own principal clarinet Sergio Castello-Lopez had all the grace and poise that the listener could wish, even when he was taxed by Debussy’s sometimes stratospheric lyrical passages.

It is always a pleasure when a concert succeeds in breathing new life into such well-known works as Boléro and Pictures, and indeed it is experiences like this which make attendance at such events so thoroughly enjoyable even on a dark and gloomy November evening. It was gratifying too to see such a large number of enthusiastic fellow-listeners.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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