A Magical Evening of ‘Spanish’ Ravel from François-Xavier Roth and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel: Isabelle Druet (Conception), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Torquemade), Thomas Dolié (Ramiro), Edgaras Montvidas (Gonzalves), Nicolas Cavallier (Gomez), London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 25.4.2019. (AS)

Ravel – Rapsodie espagnol; Boléro; L’heure espagnol

Most operas are, of course, best experienced in a live stage production rather than by means of a sound recording, and so far as L’heure espagnol is concerned it is particularly helpful to be able to follow the action with the aid of line-by-line surtitle translations: the text has so many conversational asides and sly allusions that can otherwise be missed, so quickly do they come and go. In this case we had a concert performance which confined action to platform entries and exits, with singers gesturing from their various set positions, but no matter. It was perfectly possible to follow clearly what was going on between the clockmaker’s wife and her four hapless male attendees – two of them are hopeful but unsuccessful lovers, the third is merely an initial intruder who almost without intent eventually wins the day, and the fourth is the unsuspecting husband.

What also helped a great deal was the evidently close rapport between the five characters: their timing was immaculate, and they conveyed the feeling that they were having as much fun on stage as were audience members through being entertained by them. The singing as such was highly accomplished and confident. All concerned gave the impression that they were totally inside the music. After the atmospheric prelude, the large orchestra merely comments on the action and adds colour, but precise execution of the continually changing nature of the accompaniment is needed: both this and coordination between singers and the London Symphony Orchestra were brilliantly achieved by François-Xavier Roth.

In the wrong hands Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnol can seem to be merely an exercise in the evocation of ‘Spanish’ atmosphere, but it has more than that, as François-Xavier Roth skilfully revealed. His realisation of the opening ‘Prélude à la nuit’ was magical, with ultra-sensitive care taken to create textures that had extraordinary luminosity; a very sensual atmosphere was evoked and was enhanced by the gently rocking underlying rhythm. In the ‘Malegueña’ the tempo was slow, but rhythms were now insistent and the climax was driven home pretty fiercely. The seductive nature of the ‘Habanera’ needs few emphases and Roth simply let it flow easily and naturally. ‘Feria’ had a brilliantly joyous feel to it, with rhythms sharply drawn and contrasts of mood strongly defined. The climax was quite thrilling.

The third work in this concert of Ravel’s ‘Spanish’ works was Boléro.  Though known as the composer’s most famous work it isn’t played so much these days, and it was good, within a live context, to hear again the extraordinary orchestral effects that Ravel achieves in his mounting crescendo of sound. The tempo was just a little on the fast side, but not ruinously so. The LSO achieved a shattering climax, and was rightly rewarded by highly enthusiastic applause and shouts from the audience.

Alan Sanders

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