BBCSO’s Pelléas et Mélisande Shorn of Voices is Less than the Full Story

18/04/2019

Tippett, Szymanowski and Debussy: Lisa Batiashvili (violin), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Barbican Concert Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 17.4.2019. (AS)

Sir Andrew Davis © Dario Acosta

TippettThe Rose Lake

Szymanowski – Violin Concerto No.1, Op. 35

Debussy (arr. Altinoglu)Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite (UK premiere)

Alain Altinoglu’s attempt to form an orchestral suite from Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande is the third, following versions by Erich Leinsdorf (1946) and Marius Constant (1992). It is a difficult task, since the opera is infinitely subtle in its depictions of the principal characters’ evolving states of mind and the intertwined relationships, not only through their singing and acting, but in the accompanying instrumental commentary. Thus, a purely orchestral series of highlights taken mostly from the opera’s preludes and interludes cannot adequately represent the drama and development of the piece: we are left with a series of episodes which to those who know the opera can be related back to the scenes concerned, but which to unknowing listeners can only be perceived as a sequence of atmospheric but meaningless studies in orchestral colour. It is odd to hear, for instance, the opening of the opera and expect Golaud’s spoken-aloud thoughts to commence, but they do not and then we go on to something else. This unfulfilled vocal expectancy occurs elsewhere in Altinoglu’s arrangement, in a way that it doesn’t quite so much in the Leinsdorf and Constant arrangements, both of which seem to me to be superior to Altinoglu’s recent effort. It is fair to say, however, that despite the suite’s quiet ending, audience response was most enthusiastic.

It was an astonishing feat on Sir Michael Tippett’s part to compose a complex orchestral work of nearly half an hour in length when he was in his late eighties and severely troubled by eyesight problems. It took him a year and a half of struggle to fulfil a request by the London Symphony Orchestra for a work to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. It was his last major work, as Tippett himself knew it would be, and amazingly it is highly original in content and layout for orchestra. There is no sense of retrospective looking back at past achievements: the composer is still looking ahead.

He was inspired by a visit to Lake Retba in Senegal, which contains algae that produce a red pigment when absorbed by sunshine. In his work he charts a progression of the lake’s subtly changing colours and atmosphere from dawn to dusk. The form comprises five ‘songs’ and five interludes, with an introduction and a coda. The orchestra is very large, with a battery of percussion, including an array of rototoms, a kind of tuned drum.

Apart from the late Sir Colin Davis, who conducted the work’s premiere in 1995, it is hard to think of another conductor more suited to unravelling the complexities of this score than Sir Andrew. He has the knack of getting to the heart of this kind of music with great insight and skill, as on this occasion. The BBCSO, too, is vastly experienced in playing such scores, and the level of execution was very high.

The problem for the soloist in Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto is that much of the writing for solo part takes the performer into high positions on the E string. Not only is this technically difficult so far as intonation is concerned, but the volume of sound that can be produced, though it soars above the range of the orchestral scoring, is not large. Lisa Batiashvili is a highly accomplished performer technically, and she can summon an imaginatively wild quality in her playing to suit the exotic nature of Szymanowski’s compositional style, but I have never heard a performance of this concerto in which the orchestra, playing marvellously well, so dominated the contribution of the soloist. Here was an occasion where listeners to the live relay on BBC Radio 3 will no doubt have heard a better balance through the skill of the sound engineers.

Alan Sanders

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