Sir Simon Rattle’s Masterful Ravel at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC PROM 48 – Ravel: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 18.8.2018. (AS)

Magdalena Kožená as Child (featured centre) (c) BBC/Chris Chistodoulou

Ravel – Ma mère l’oye – ballet; Shéhérazade; 

L’enfant et les sortilèges

Child – Magdalena Kožená
Mother/Dragonfly/A Shepherd – Patricia Bardon (mezzo-soprano)
The Fire/The Nightingale/Princess – Jane Archibald (soprano)
The Grandfather Clock/The Black Cat – Gavan Ring (baritone)
The Chair/The White Cat/The Chinese Cup/The Squirrel – Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)
The Shepherdess/The Bat/The Owl – Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
The Teapot/The Little Old Man/The Tree-Frog – Sunnyboy Dladia (tenor)
A Tree/The Armchair – David Shipley (bass)

Ravel’s Mother Goose exists in three versions. It was firstly written in 1910 as a suite of five pieces for piano duet, in which form it is wonderfully effective and often programmed in recitals. In 1911 Ravel orchestrated the five pieces, turning them into the orchestral suite that we also hear frequently. Later that year he w’s commissioned to turn the work into a ballet and added two opening movements, the ‘Prélude’ and ‘Danse du rouet’ (Dance of the Spinning Wheel). He also changed the order of the original five pieces and separated them by writing four Interludes. These three separate stages in the work’s evolution were not made clear by the concert’s programme annotator.

The two added opening numbers, both just as beautifully composed and orchestrated as the five following pieces, are an important addition to the work as a whole, but dare one suggest that the Interludes are of lesser quality, and though piquantly scored, are no more than between-movement fillers. In the original five-movement form the separate pieces follow each other as a logical and totally satisfying entity. This is negated by the change of order and the insertion of the Interludes in the ballet version. In both of his two Decca recordings of the work Ernest Ansermet resolved the issue by playing the two added opening movements, but not the Interludes, and keeping the original order of the five following movements.

Sir Simon Rattle conducted the complete ballet, and in its own terms it was a superlative performance. Rattle has perfect insight into the music’s evocation of the innocent imagination of a child, and there were no unwanted adult intrusions in the shape of sophisticated shaping of phrases. He just conducted the music as it is, with the greatest sensitivity and affection. There is a great temptation for conductors to start moulding the final ‘Jardin féerique’, though this quite destroys its atmosphere of calm wonderment. If Rattle introduced tiny changes of tempo towards the end of this piece they were well within bounds.

From the child’s world of imagination we were then transported to the mysterious Orient, and to a superlative realisation of Shéhérazade by Magdalena Kožená (aka Lady Rattle) with her husband on the rostrum. In an interview printed in the programme Kožená declared that Ravel was one of her favourite composers, and that for her Shéhérazade is ‘one of the most erotic pieces ever written’. At last year’s Proms we heard an outstanding performance of this work sung by Marianne Crebassa. Kožená’s singing was similarly inspired by the nature of the texts and the music. Her understanding of the work’s soul would have gone for very little if the delivery had been indifferent, but her singing had a most beautiful, seductive tone quality.

L’enfant et les sortilèges was presented straightforwardly in concert form, with just a little play-acting between the singers on stage at points where this could be easily achieved. The programme printed a synopsis of the opera, which of course could be pre-digested before the performance, if not during it. A translation of the sung text was presented in the form of surtitles projected onto three screens. This was fine up to a point, but if you have a printed libretto it is usual for the character who is singing the words to be named. Here there was no such identification, so in such a fast-moving piece it often needed a pretty good knowledge of the opera to know which character was singing at a given point, especially since all but one of the soloists has between two and four different roles.

This quibble aside, it was a totally enjoyable presentation of the score. Nothing would have worked if it hadn’t been for Sir Simon’s masterly control over proceedings. Not only was that the case, but his conducting had tremendous flair and wit. Again, he seemed totally inside the music, and every detail, every choice of tempo and phrase seemed just as it should be. Magdalena Kožená had exchanged her elegant Shéhérazade dress for an old-fashioned boy’s sailor suit. Her representation of the changes in the emotional state of the Child – bored, petulant rebellion, turning to fear of the objects that come to life and return his torment of them, and finally repentance and redemption – were vivid and very touching. She was given very good support by the other singers: there was some particularly fine coloratura singing by Jane Archibald in her role as The Fire, and the vexed emotions of the Mother were finely conveyed by Patricia Bardon. The London Symphony Chorus sang with rich character, and throughout the evening the LSO played with the artistry and virtuosity that we now take for granted.

Alan Sanders

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