United Kingdom Debussy, Ravel: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Philharmonia Orchestra / Pablo Heras-Cassado (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 21.1.2018. (CC)
Debussy – Prélude de l’après-midi d’un faune; La mer (1905)
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G; Ma Mère l’oye (Suite)
This programme appeared to offer fine fare for a Sunday afternoon. Languishing along with a faun and entering a fairytale world seem perfect ways to forget the strife of the workday week or, indeed, global malaise.
It’s not quite so straightforward, though, if, musically, everything is not quite settled in. Looking across the ranks of the Philharmonia, and double-checking with the handout of personnel, revealed a number of fresh faces and names; opening one’s ears revealed that the Rolls Royce sound and contained virtuosity of this orchestra was somewhat compromised. And compromised right from the off, with a rather breathy flute solo from Samuel Coles for that famous opening of Debussy’s Prélude. On the credit side of this performance was Heras-Cassado’s shaping of long lines; on the debit side was some rough edges along the way from the orchestra generally. The lovely muted horns of the close implied the orchestra was warming its way into the afternoon, but really one should expect no run-up from this orchestra in particular.
A star soloist for the Ravel was the main draw for this reviewer: the ever-musical Pierre-Laurent Aimard, on home territory. The Ravel G major concerto carries a multitude of tricky moments of ensemble, yet here they all seemed perfectly judged. After a proper whip’s crack to set the work in motion, Aimard played the opening figurations very quietly and perfectly evenly, like a corona around Ravel’s melody. Although Steinway’s own website bills Aimard as a Steinway artist since 1979, he chose to play on a Yamaha (CFX, I believe), an instrument he also used for his Messiaen Vingt Régards in London in 2016. The Yamaha sound, a touch brighter than a Steinway, was perfect for Ravel’s soundworld, with a bass of lighter resonance than your typical Model D. The orchestral contributions were varied, including a superb first movement bassoon solo from Robin O’Neill and lovely harp solos against a rather messy first movement horn solo from Stephen Craigen. Aimard brought the mood of a twilit slow waltz to the long solo at the outset of the central panel; a nicely played, if slightly under-projected, cor anglais solo (Jill Crowther) continued the mood perfectly. Slow movements can highlight pianists’ techniques, too, and Aimard’s handling of what is ostensibly a simple neighbour-note figure, delivered in perfect evenness, was remarkable. For the finale, one wonders whether the slightly under-tempo speed was due to Aimard’s insistence on clarity, his light touch a continual source of joy; it certainly offered a viable alternative to more cartoonish interpretations.
The second half once more juxtaposed Debussy and Ravel, with the order reversed. Ravel’s delicious Suite for Ma Mère l’oye was first up. It is fair to say that the two Ravel items offered the highlights of the concert. Christian Stene delivered a fabulous clarinet solo in the opening ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’, while a simply gorgeous web of sound underpinned ‘Laideronette’. Leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay projected his solos perfectly. The joyful crescendo of the final ‘Le Jardin féerique’ rounded off this tremendous performance.
Finally, Debussy’s La mer in a mixed performance, the cellos beautifully controlled in the first movement (a huge double-bass pizzicato at the end), the second panel’s structure well-realised by Heras-Casado and a superb solo violin contribution from the leader (great staccato). Perhaps the brass chorale at the close of the work could have glowed more.