United Kingdom Bizet, Petitgirard, Beethoven: Scottish Chamber Orchestra / François Leleux (oboe, conductor). City Halls, Glasgow, 4.3.2022. (GT)
Bizet – L’Arlésienne, Suite No.1
Laurent Petitgirard – Oboe Concerto SOUEN WOU K’ONG (world premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.36
This programme offered a rather strange mix of seemingly unrelated pieces yet within each lies a sense of the narrative, or storytelling. Georges Bizet’s music for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne in 1872 includes as many as 27 numbers written in an illustrative and scene-setting manner all in a short period owing to censorship problems at the time. Regrettably, the show at Théâtre du Vaudeville had only 21 performances which led to Bizet shaping four extracts into this Suite (the second suite was arranged after Bizet’s death). The Prélude immediately opened with the colourful Provencal folk tune ‘March of the Kings’ leading to a flow of variations heard on vivid strings, and as the folk idea moved across the orchestra, we heard outstanding brilliance from the flute of André Cebrián, and the oboe of Robin Williams, while the alto-sax of Lewis Banks and the bassoon of Cerys Ambrose-Evans presented a characterisation of the dejected hero Frédéri’s brother in a rather disconsolate entry. The Minuet rushed by with its rather impassive dance, while the Adagietto benefited with fine playing from the first violins brilliantly led by Cecilia Ziano, and in the Carillon, an evocation of church bells from the natural horns, and at last glorious colour emerged though it was a little underwhelming.
In his career, the oboist François Leleux has commissioned new works from a host of composers including Nicolas Bacri, Giya Kancheli, Thierry Pécou in recent years. Laurent Petitgirard’s new Oboe Concerto was commissioned by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra for Leleux, and fortunately Scotland has won the right to give the world premiere of this newly written piece. The composer was inspired by a sixteenth-century Chinese novel by Wu Cheng’en (Journey to the West) which tells of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang and his travels with his companions Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy from China through Central Asia to India in the search for Buddhist scriptures. The travels are an act of redemption for the monk and his accompanying disciples, and the story is in the form of a fairy-tale with Xuanzang possessing the power to leap huge distances in a single jump, there are golden rings giving great powers. Petitgirard reveals that he explained to ‘the wonderful artist’ Leleux how ‘that in this score written for a very large orchestra the oboe was essential with many solos, he suggested that I make an oboe concerto out of it. It was an amazing experience to work on the composition but in a much smaller orchestration and in a concerto perspective.’
The new concerto opened with an eye-catching theme repeated five times before the soloist opened with a captivating idea which became rather multifaceted in his relationship with the orchestra, often the writing for the orchestra was like film music trying to create an atmosphere in a drama, yet the themes slowly built up to a crescendo with occasionally rippling voices developing from the orchestra – sounding like voices splashing against the shore – every so often the tempo advanced and a swiftly paced idea was heard on the strings, then a quite philosophical and complex one from Leleux before disappearing into silence. This was a fascinating piece, and it was a remarkable event to have a world premiere by a distinguished French composer here in Scotland.
Beethoven’s Second Symphony was written in Heiligenstadt where he was trying to seek relief from the problems of deafness, and contemplated suicide, yet by writing his new symphony, he discovered a way out of his plight. The first movement (Adagio molto) following a gentle entrance, swiftly developed in momentum with the strings swiftly introducing a rather beefy theme, and the dynamic switches between major and minor were enhanced by excellent playing from Cebrián’s flute and Ambrose-Evans’s bassoon, the second idea on strings was so exhilarating and the level of excitement was enhanced by taps on timpani from Louise Goodwin. In the second movement (Larghetto) Leleux now picked up his baton, inspiring fine playing from bassoon and clarinet, leading to passages of sublime playing – notably from the first violins and flute. In the Scherzo, Leleux conjured up more virtuosity from oboe, bassoon and strings, in creating a maelstrom of excitingly dramatic, yet cheerful music presenting the composer in one of his happiest and charming moods. The finale (Allegro molto) started at a breathtakingly fast pace, with the orchestra displaying its brilliance – as if knowing this music by heart – most impressive were the cellos, timpani, flute, oboe in a dramatic, thrilling rhythmic pulse storming to the joyous close of this symphonic masterpiece. In it very last moments the narrative of Beethoven overcoming great difficulties in his early career and resolving them through his tenacity, courage and stoicism brought this fine concert to a close.