United States Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin: Isabel Leonard (mezzo-soprano), Women’s Chorus from The Juilliard School, New York Philharmonic / Louis Langrée (conductor). David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 5.3.2020. (RP)
Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Nocturnes
Ravel – Shéhérazade
Scriabin – Le poème de l’extase Op.54
In his debut performance with the New York Philharmonic, conductor Louis Langrée built a musical wave that ebbed in volume but never intensity, from the first sounds of the solo in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune until the climax of Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this program was Langrée’s ability to coax soft, shimmering sounds from the New York Philharmonic. Muscular playing is to be expected from the Philharmonic, but the lightness and transparency that Langrée drew from the orchestra were impressive indeed.
Langrée, Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center and of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, chose a program of works composed between 1892 and 1908 for his first appearance with the Philharmonic. All were considered adventuresome by the standards of their day, but their exoticism and scintillating orchestral colors have come to captivate audiences. The Scriabin is the wildest and lushest of the lot, a work which the author Henry Miller famously described as being ‘like a batch of ice, cocaine and rainbows’.
Beneath the languidness and sensuality, Langrée maintained a constant tension in his reading of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, as if something dangerous was lurking in its musical mists. The tones produced by Principal Flutist Robert Langevin had the same intoxicating mix of eroticism and mystery. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the spellbinding serenity of the performance managed to transport the restive audience into a tranquil, almost hypnotic state.
In ‘Nuages’, the first of the three short works that comprise Debussy’s Nocturnes, the musical clouds produced by the orchestra created an equally blissful mood that was only momentarily disturbed by darker, more menacing skies. ‘Fêtes’ was propelled by soft pulses in the trumpets that gradually grew into a raucous celebration of dazzling sound. In its concluding measure, one of the most magical moments of the concert, the revelries simply evaporated as if swept away by a gentle breeze.
For ‘Sirènes’, Langrée seated the sixteen singers of the Women’s Chorus from The Juilliard School in the orchestra, rather than positioning them behind the players. Their voices emerged as part of the overall musical texture, rather than a wall of sound from behind the orchestra. There was danger, as well as beauty, in their seductive singing.
Isabel Leonard approached Ravel’s Shéhérazade as if she were reciting Tristan Klingsor’s poems to the audience, rather than experiencing them afresh. Although her mezzo-soprano was alluring and expertly produced, Leonard’s limited repertoire of facial expressions and hand movements siphoned the spontaneity from her performance. The wonder and awe inherent in the songs was best heard in their orchestral accompaniments, especially in the swirl of the harps, the warmth of the horn sound and the scintillating playing of the woodwinds.
Scriabin’s Le poème de l’extase began dreamily but quickly escalated into heavy panting, sighing and euphoric cries of passion. The brass heaved great volleys of sound at the audience; the playing of Christopher Martin, the orchestra’s principal trumpet, was particularly brilliant. It was a wonderful sight to see the strings fiercely bowing in unison, perfectly in sync with the arms of the percussionists beating furiously. The cascades of sound, especially the pealing of the chimes and orchestral bells, created a sense of euphoria, which at its climax released the tension that had been building from the beginning of the concert. By then, the audience had seen all the rainbows that Henry Miller had described, and not only in the Scriabin.