The Overdue Proms Debut of Orchestre de la Suisse Romande is Worth the Wait


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 45 – Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Jonathan Nott (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 16.8.2018. (MB)

Renaud Capuçon (violin), Jonathan Nott (conductor) & Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Debussy – Jeux

Ravel, orch. Yan Maresz – Violin Sonata in G major (UK premiere)

Stravinsky – Petrushka (1911 version)

It was surprising to learn that, in its centenary year, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was making its Proms debut. Still, better late than never – and at least we have good reason to look forward to this orchestra’s return, unlike the SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg, whose first performance three years ago was already known to be its last. The OSR’s new music director, Jonathan Nott, is no stranger to the Proms; I have fond memories, for instance, of a 2013 Bamberg Symphony Orchestra concert of Lachenmann and Mahler. Here, ahead of the release of their first recording together (Debussy, Strauss, and Ligeti), they brought one of those pieces, Debussy’s Jeux, together with the British premiere of a new orchestration of Ravel and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Surely the most radical of Debussy’s works, Jeux commenced with due paradox: mysterious, atmospheric, yet clear as a bell, questioning and deconstructing whatever meaning might remain in the clichés, metaphors, even mere descriptions we chose to employ. It seemed to cast something of an aural glance towards Petrushka and even, perhaps, to The Firebird, as well as to roughly contemporaneous Schoenberg, and yet, in its flickering multiplicities of melody, timbre, and their interaction, also look forward to many subsequent milestones in twentieth-century musical history. It flowed; it told a story of sorts, which may or may not have been closely identified with the Diaghilev scenario Debussy derided as idiotic. It danced too, in all manner of ways, kaleidoscopically – if that makes any sense (and even, perhaps, if it does not).

Renaud Capuçon joined the orchestra for Yan Maresz’s orchestration of Ravel’s G major Violin Sonata. An opening oboe solo, perhaps inevitably, recalled Le Tombeau de Couperin, not just in itself but also in its interaction with the violin. The first movement as a whole somewhat puzzled me: it was all very sensitively done, yet I could not really discern the point. Capuçon seemed to be playing his part from the Sonata, which of course he was, but the reason for no longer having a piano, for transformation from a chamber music context remained elusive. There were a few exceptions, for instance echoing between soloist and orchestral violins, when something a little more like a concerto was suggested; they nevertheless remained exceptions. The blues second movement fared better, from its opening orchestral pizzicati – really ‘strummed’ – onwards, Maresz’s jazzy use of trumpets included. The orchestra, as it swelled, sounded more like that of Ravel’s own G major Piano Concerto, much to its advantage. The finale likewise mirrored its concerto counterpart, again to good effect. Capuçon’s virtuosity proved as striking as one might have expected; his, moreover, was not the only virtuosity to be heard. His encore, the all-too-familiar ‘Meditation’ from Massenet’s Thaïs, reminded us that sometimes a piece’s original forces are to be preferred.

There seems only one reason to perform the 1947 version of Petrushka: economy, in most cases a false one. It was 1911 we heard here in a performance that constantly surprised, made me listen anew. The Shrovetide Fair came into view colourful, expectant, percussion unusually prominent: this was a performance that looked forward, never back. An automated quality to the barrel organ music suggested not only Lulu – does it not always? – but Ligeti too. Likewise, one could hear with unusual clarity Rite of Spring-like cells, both inviting and forbidding. Marionettes trod the boards of our consciousness: not entirely unlike zombies from Mahler, if with a very different foundation. In many ways, it sounded closer to Stravinsky’s own dryness in this work – partly, I know, a matter of recording – than to the relative luxuriance of Boulez. Sometimes, perhaps, that was down to an orchestral sound that remained on the thin side, but it was surely an interpretative decision too. Nott’s tempi sometimes proved unexpected, yet always compelled; much the same might be said of the truly phantasmagorical return of the Shrovetide Fair. There were ghosts in these machines and, most likely, machines in these ghosts.

Mark Berry

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