United Kingdom Ravel, Thorvaldsdottir, Prokofiev, Bizet: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Iceland Symphony Orchestra / Yan-Pascal Tortelier (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 13.2.2020. (PCG)
Bizet – L’Arlésienne, selections
Ravel – Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Thorvaldsdottir – Aeriality
Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet, selections
After the magnificent attendance at the Beethoven 1808 concert last month – when the hall was packed to the rafters – it was highly disappointing to find the auditorium less than half full for this appearance by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra as part of the St David’s Hall International Concert Series. Even bad weather was not an excuse: the sequence of heavy storms afflicting us over the past week (they prevented my attendance at an interesting BBC concert in the same hall last Sunday) has temporarily abated. It was a great shame that more people were not present at this fifth concert in the UK tour of an orchestra whose reputation has been well established over the years by a series of excellent recordings, but of whom the opportunity for live experience is limited.
The programme began with a selection of items from the Bizet incidental music to L’Arlésienne, five movements from the eight included in the suites concocted by the composer and (posthumously) by his friend Ernest Guiraud. We were denied the opportunity to hear Bizet’s overture. That was unfortunate: new listeners could have appreciated the felicitous manner in which Guiraud dovetailed the musical material from that movement into his arrangement of Bizet’s Farandole. But the performance as a whole had plenty of sparkle, with characterful woodwind solos, and in that final Farandole the orchestra seemed on the verge of running away with the conductor altogether. One feared at first that the string sound might not be ideally rich enough for the later items in the programme, but such fears would have been groundless; the playing had a clearly deliberate rustic tinge appropriate to the score, and there was certainly no lack of weight later on.
Ravel’s piano concertos have had a good number of outings in Cardiff during the last few years. There have been occasions when I have feared that the technical aspects of their performance – both are fiendishly difficult to play – might tend to overshadow the lyrical aspects of the music. That was certainly not the case here. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet time and again drew out the distinction between the rhapsodic melodic lines and the efflorescent accompaniment in a manner that totally defied the fact that he was playing with merely one hand. The orchestra was totally at one with this approach. Even the snoring double bassoon in the opening bars had a sense of lyrical purpose. The single movement of the concerto cohered in a manner that made its structure clear, and although the brief final coda after the elaborate cadenza did not altogether bring the weighty argument to a fully satisfactory conclusion, that is the nature of the music that Ravel wrote and intended. The informative programme note gives substantial quotations from newspaper articles by Ravel at the time of the première of his concerto, where he interestingly describes the conclusion of the work as ‘brutal’. Bavouzet thoroughly justified his reputation as a superlative interpreter of impressionist composers with an (sadly, unannounced and unidentified) encore of by Debussy, I think. It brought the audience cheering to its feet.
After the interval the orchestra proceeded to display its Icelandic credentials by presenting a performance of Aeriality by the contemporary composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a work commissioned by the orchestra and premièred in 2011. It is being featured in each of the concerts of the orchestra’s current UK tour. The programme note informed us that the piece has been performed by thirty different orchestras around the world in the last eight years; it has been recorded, and substantial citations from various reviews printed in the programme testified to a very positive critical reaction. My own impression was of a series of overlaid textures rather in the manner of Ligeti, often beautiful and fascinating in their own right and decorated with a series of various avant garde effects – slow string glissandi, elaborate rubbing movements across the skin of the drum, and so on. What was missing was a sense of purpose, and this suddenly seemed to be supplied half-way through with a tentative but decidedly romantic string cantilena. It introduced a sense of warmth – only to evaporate as rapidly as it had appeared, leaving a wistful aftertaste. One remark in the programme note described the music as ‘an ecosystem of sounds’ which seemed an apt summation of the work. The composer was present in the hall to receive the applause of the audience.
As with Bizet’s L’Arlésienne, Yan-Pascal Tortelier presented his own selection of movements from Prokofiev’s ballet score for Romeo and Juliet. The suite made very good sense; it enabled the audience to follow the action of the original Shakespeare play closely, and offered plenty of contrast. Three of the extracts – the Balcony Scene, Tybalt’s death, and the closing scene at Juliet’s tomb – were given at full length; that demonstrated how well Prokofiev could sustain dramatic and musical tension across the ‘numbers’ of a ballet score. We were even treated to a pair of mandolins for the Morning Serenade, appearing suddenly at the back of the stage and trooping off after their duty was done.
The very large orchestra (with eight double-basses) produced a sound which filled the hall in the manner that Prokofiev clearly expected, and the sounds of the massed violins (all thirty of them) brought tones of plangent lament to Juliet’s death. The woodwind too were again full of character, with perky clarinets and oboes well to the fore. The playing of the horn section in the balcony scene, which can be over-emphatic in some performances, was beautifully blended into the whole. Timothy Dowling’s excellent and informative programme note was carefully and closely aligned to the music that the conductor had selected to play.
The orchestra then unexpectedly furnished us with two encores (unannounced again…) drawn from the realm of English music. The string miniature Touch her soft lips and part from Walton’s film music for Henry V was played with all the delicacy that one could wish. Next, the orchestra gave us a sparkling and riotous conclusion with Elgar’s Wild bears from the second Wand of Youth suite, although innocent listeners could be forgiven for not recognising the growling noises that emanated from the lower brass for what they were intended to represent. They still responded with enthusiastic applause for the display of real bravura playing from the orchestra.
The remainder of the orchestra’s tour takes in performances at the Anvil in Basingstoke (14 February), Leeds Town Hall (15 February) and the Usher Hall in Edinburgh (16 February, with Sibelius’s First Symphony instead of the Romeo and Juliet music). Audiences unfamiliar with the work of this excellent orchestra should not hesitate.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
For an interview with Yan-Pascal Tortelier click here.