Vladimir Jurowksi presents a richly varied survey of music inspired by Don Quixote

GermanyGermany Telemann, Boismortier, Ravel, Ibert, and R. Strauss: Paul Gay (bass-baritone), Alejandro Regueira Caumel (viola), Konstanze von Gutzeit (cello), Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowksi (conductor). Konzerthaus, Berlin, 12.10.2023. (MB)

Standing: Konstanze von Gutzeit (l, cello) and Alejandro Regueira Caumel (r, viola) with members of the RSB © Robert Niemeyer

Telemann  Bourlesque de Quixotte, TWW 55:G10
BoismortierDon Quichotte chez la duchesse, Op.97: ballet music
Ravel – Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
IbertQuatre chansons de Don Quichotte
R. Strauss Don Quixote, Op.35

‘Wie klingt “Don Quijote”?’ was the question posed by (and in) the programme to this splendid tour through musical depictions of Cervantes’s would-be knight-errant. To answer the question, we discovered that Don Quixote sounds in various ways, yet always colourfully and, aptly enough, endearingly too. Vladimir Jurowski’s gift for programming, so strong a feature of his time as Music Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, has not deserted him in Berlin. The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) is clearly thriving under his leadership, here in music ranging from Telemann to Ravel.

Telemann’s turned twice as a composer to Cervantes’s novel, in 1761 writing a one-act opera on an episode from it: Don Quijote auf der Hochzeit des Camacho. (The young Mendelssohn would also turn to this same episode.) This ‘burlesque’ orchestral suite from 1739 takes in different episodes over the course of its seven movements and proved in performance both splendidly enjoyable and vividly theatrical. Its opening French overture might indeed have been the curtain-raiser to an opera of its own, here driven in fine balance between rhythm and harmony. We heard – and may have felt we saw – horses’ hooves in our hero’s celebrated tilting at windmills, Sancho Panza’s bruising and his donkey’s gallop, dragging and then absurdly accelerating, and much more, the final movement a well-earned sprint to the finish. Well-chosen percussion effects from triangle to tambourine added to the pictorial jollity.

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier wrote his ‘comédie lyrique’ Don Quichotte chez la Duchesse on an episode in which Telemann found courtly repose and perhaps a greater emotional depth than elsewhere in his suite. Here we heard only some of the orchestral (ballet) music: the overture, a sequence of march, two tambourins, and second march, and a chaconne. (An old BBC broadcast with splendid cast may be found here for the eighty minutes or so of the entire work.)  Another arresting overture, this time actually written for the theatre, had us all but see the curtain and its rise. Notes and drama, even in this purely instrumental music, fairly flew off the players’ pages. Jurowski and the orchestra, moreover, conveyed the composer’s voice, close in some ways to Rameau yet quite different in others, with great élan, the conductor himself leading from tambourine in the first march. Oboes, bassoons, and harpsichord offered a fine Gallic contrast in the second tambourin. The chaconne proved piquant and full of surprises, from its opening gong stroke onwards. Through its twists and turns of mood and material, Jurowski never forgot this was a single dance; nor did we.

Vladimir Jurowski conducts bass-baritone Paul Gay and the RSB © Robert Niemeyer

Bass-baritone Paul Gay joined the orchestra for two sets of songs intended for Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s film starring Feodor Chaliapin. Ravel’s short song-cycle, his final completed work, was written too late for inclusion, but Jacques Ibert’s four songs were sung both in the film and in a recording made by Chaliapin and Ibert. Neither composer sets Cervantes: Ravel opted for contemporary texts by Paul Morand, whereas Ibert’s selection mixed old and new with Pierre de Ronsard and Alexander Arnoux. Both composers, even with small orchestra, Ibert’s (saxophone included) somewhat larger than Ravel’s, could offer a more varied instrumental palette; yet one could readily fancy one heard something of a ‘French’ ear for colour continued from their eighteenth-century predecessor. Gay presented resolutely unsentimental, communicative performances, relishing the melismata in the third of Ravel’s three songs, the ‘Chanson à boire’, in which his ‘Spanish’ voice comes to the fore one last time, as much as the keen narrative of Ibert’s ‘Chanson à Dulcinée’ and the undeniably filmic qualities of the farewell, ‘Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte’.

And so we came to Strauss’s tone-poem, the excellent Alejandro Regueira Caumel and Konstanze von Gutzeit stepping forward as ‘soloists’, yet acting collegially as much as highlighted leaders of their sections. The RSB’s versatility, on show throughout, was certainly evident here, immediately sounding, for want of a better word, Straussian. Jurowski’s way with the score was fascinating, more modernistic, even strangely Stravinskian, than I can recall having heard. Generally brisk and admirably clear, I could not help but feel there was loss as well as gain, but we shall always have Karajan, Kempe, and others to return to when we wish. His trademark formalism certainly paid off in delineation of the work’s variation form and sharp individual characterisation of each episode. In any case, as the mood darkened, the orchestra’s colours, especially from the RSB brass, spoke increasingly for themselves. Quite a storm was whipped up, not only via the wind-machine. In the later duet of two bassoons it was, strangely, Stravinsky who once again came to mind. Woodwind in general were pleasingly rumbunctious. If this were ultimately a somewhat distanced performance, Caumel and Gutzeit notwithstanding, like the rest of the programme, it had me think — and, in a number of ways, reconsider.

Mark Berry

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