Day 21 of the George Enescu Festival: David Grimal and Les Dissonances

RomaniaRomania George Enescu Festival 2021 [5]: David Grimal (solo violin and concertmaster), Les Dissonances. Sala Palatului, Bucharest, 17.9.2021. (SS)

David Grimal plays at the George Enescu Festival (c) Cătălina Filip

Stravinsky – Suite from The Firebird (1945 version)
ChaussonPoème, Op.25
BartókConcerto for Orchestra

This concert began with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, which I will come to later as it was not only the most extraordinary performance of the evening but also genuinely festspielwürdig – ‘worthy of a festival’, though the English doesn’t have quite the same hallowed ring as the German.

Moving on for now to Ernest Chausson’s Poème: there was no doubt this was being played by a French orchestra. Indeed, the sound that Les Dissonances produced here was appreciably more Gallic than anything even the Orchestre de France had played the other night (review click here). But despite the beauty of tone, an aural bubble bath did no favors for the piece itself. Written at the end of his short life, the Poème comes from a creative period in which Chausson had evolved from the poor man’s Massenet into the poor man’s Franck. I had to listen to a recording after the concert to confirm if the work is actually any good, and yes, with a more muscular sound and more dramatic pacing, it isn’t that bad. Here, on the other hand, it felt interminable: Franckian noodling that just wallowed without going anywhere. David Grimal, the concertmaster-founder of Les Dissonances and the closest thing the ensemble has to a conductor, gave a beautifully honeyed performance of the violin solo, but even that couldn’t redeem a choice to play the melodic line as endless flurries of tediously pretty ornamentation.

Grimal closed out the first half with another solo turn in Ravel’s Tzigane, which he started playing a mere two hours after Maxim Vengerov had just performed this piece in the Athenaeum. Comparisons were inevitable – as it turned out, not just to Vengerov but also the Chausson. This Tzigane sounded more connected than both, and no less virtuosic than Vengerov. Instead of Polina Osetinskaya’s stunning playing, there was a cloud-like shimmer of color and light from Les Dissonances. It was intriguing to hear two such contrasting performances, both excellent, so close together.

In the second half, the ‘concerto’ element of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra felt patchy – some sections of the orchestra really went for it, others might have given more. The bassoons in the second movement were too modest, and the flutes outshone the rest of the woodwind throughout the piece. There were other problems in the middle movements too. The wrenching climax of the Elegia sounded more like Poulenc than Bartók, which seemed like an unwarranted erasure of the latter’s musical identity. The vulnerable heart of what the composer called his ‘lugubrious death-song’ admittedly has a couple of uncannily Poulencian harmonies, but still sounds better as Bartók. The rubato surrounding the Shostakovich/Lehár parody in the fourth movement was pretty labored; the orchestra just about pulled it off in the end, but Grimal was vehemently tapping his foot to get it under control. Pacing was an issue again in the final movement – with the slow passages played too sluggishly and the fast ones hastily skated over, the whole balance just seemed off.

This Concerto for Orchestra wasn’t a performance for the ages, but still well played overall despite its less convincing moments. Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, on the other hand, achieved perfection, of the kind that will slightly mar my enjoyment of this piece the next few times I hear it – a small price to pay for the memory of this performance, however. The playing, always more impressionistic than jagged, had the kind of stupendous intensity and grace that you would associate more readily with a top-notch ballet company than an orchestra – the ‘Infernal Dance’ in particular felt deliriously balletic. The whole suite unfolded in one long seamless sweep, with astounding balance, precision and phrasing for a conductor-less performance. Indeed, the music sounded like it was being continually steered and shaped by a great conductor, instead of there being none at all. Like many of those great conductors often told or tell their musicians, the key is to listen to each other. But to play this complex music so stunningly through listening alone – let me not neglect to mention the ending, with the most glorious build-up I have heard live (even pipping Gergiev) – was a phenomenal feat.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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