United Kingdom Debussy, Ravel: Joaquín Achúcarro (piano), Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Voices, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 25.11.2018. (SRT)
Debussy – Nocturnes; Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; La Mer
Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Astonishingly, the last time Joaquín Achúcarro shared the stage with the BBC SSO it was 1971! This 86-year-old pianist may no longer be a spring chicken, but he still packs a mighty (left-handed) punch. Necessarily dominated by the lower reaches of the keyboard, the dark sound of Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto seemed here to bring out the best of both orchestra and soloist, the spine-tingling opening rising up from the depths before an opening cadenza that was majestic while retaining its dark hue, as well as suggestions of the orientalism that had so preoccupied Debussy. If anything, Achúcarro’s keyboard seemed to be leading the orchestra, and conductor Thomas Dausgaard met him with a majestic sound picture whose central section managed energy reminiscent of the parade scene in Debussy’s Fêtes. Achúcarro’s cadenzas were deep, dark journeys, from which the melodies seemed constantly to be striving for freedom, and the explosion of the ending brought the pianist to his feet, as well as cheers from the crowd.
However, the main man of this concert was Ravel’s compatriot, Claude Debussy. As his centenary year draws to an end, it’s good to get one last big bang of Debussy to remind us both of how radically he innovated and how beautiful he managed to make the results. I don’t recall hearing the BBC SSO play Debussy before, perhaps because the RSNO rather made him their own under Stéphane Denève. The results were stellar, however, creating a shimmering star-curtain of sound that rather took my breath away.
Take the famous Prélude, for example. The opening flute solo was daringly soft, but it then vanished into a glittering waterfall of music with liquid winds and a glorious sheen at the top of the violins. Whether it’s down to Thomas Dausgaard or to the orchestra themselves scarcely matters: the BBC players seem to have a perfect understanding of the nebulous sound world that Debussy needs to succeed, the melodies and textures blending into one another like smudges in a chalk drawing.
If the Prélude was sensuous and mesmerising, then La Mer was overwhelming in its symphonic power, moving like a great arch from the dusky opening through to the triumphant climax of the end. The texture was peppered with some wonderful details, though, such as the harp figurations and string pizzicati of the first movement, or the fluttering winds of the second. The Nocturnes, too, were blessed with long-breathed winds and diaphanous strings which made the opening skyscape really quite hypnotic. Fêtes soon snapped me out of my trance, though, with its whirling sense of a driving line, so remarkable because, in Debussy, it’s so rare. Then the final Siren song was crowned by a lovely choir of young ladies from the Conservatoire, whose vocal glissandi reinforced the picture of the rippling waves as they disappeared into the boundless horizon.
It was quite a remarkable achievement, really; perhaps in part because I had no right to expect such an impressive understanding of the composer’s impressionistic universe but ended up getting the finest Debussy I have heard this year.
You can find out for yourself, because the concert was recorded and will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 28th November (click here for details).