Phenomenal Ravel from Chamayou; and searching Vaughan Williams from Pappano and the LSO

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Raksin, Ravel, Vaughan Williams: Bertrand Chamayou (piano), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 18.4.2024. (JR)

Sir Antonio Pappano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra © Mark Allan

David Raksin – The Bad and the Beautiful – Suite
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major
Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5

David Raksin was not a name I knew, not being a film music buff. Born in Philadelphia in 1912, he scored over 100 films and 300 TV shows. His father led a cinema orchestra and occasionally played saxophone in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He impressed Gershwin, drew liberally on jazz and the Great American Songbook but has been rather eclipsed by the likes of European émigrés Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Erich Korngold. His most famous scores include Laura (1944), Forever Amber (1947) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). He believed firmly in the quality of film music, concluding that ‘people who are sceptical about its value should be condemned to watch films without it’. Raksin’s suite elaborated on themes from the score of The Bad and the Beautiful. After a glitzy fanfare opening, the main theme sweeps in on plush strings: saxophone adds to the feeling of sexual allure or murky reality. There is a slow movement, a light quirky scherzo (the most interesting movement in my view) and a bluesy finale (Nocturne and Scene). My mind wandered, the melodies not imprinting themselves on my brain. The piece served as an introduction to a varied programme, whatever were one’s thoughts of film music. The London Symphony Orchestra was one of the first orchestras to record film music and, to be fair, this has generated much income for them. Antonio Pappano and the orchestra looked quite at home in this genre and they gave it their full attention.

Bertrand Chamayou plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto © Mark Allan

Bertrand Chamayou hails from Toulouse. His many successful recordings include music by César Franck and piano concertos Nos. 2 and 5 by Camille Saint-Saëns – this garnered him the Gramophone Recording of the Year in 2019. The only artist to win France’s prestigious Victoires de la Musique on five occasions, he was awarded the 2016 ECHO Klassik for his recording of Ravel’s complete works for solo piano. On the strength of this concert performance, I can currently think of no one who could play this concerto better. It was simply phenomenal. I just felt sorry for those seated on the right-hand side of the hall who could not marvel at Chamayou’s digital athleticism on the keyboard. The music came alive, cementing my view that the work is a masterpiece; aided by Pappano’s diligent accompaniment. Chamayou displayed lightning speed in the fast passages and tenderness in the slower parts, tinkling at the upper reaches of the keyboard; his crossed hands were a joy to watch. Glistening harp glissandi (Bryn Lewis) and ravishing cor anglais (Augustin Gorisse) added to the mix. Warmest applause was rewarded by a suitably delicate encore by Debussy, his prelude The girl with the flaxen hair.

Pappano gave us a very fine account of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony which most admirers of this composer regard as his finest symphony. It is sandwiched between two war symphonies which attack the senses with their brutality: the Fifth is an optimistic breath of fresh air. Composed between 1938 and 1943 in the depths of the English countryside, it shares something of the temper of his opera Pilgrim’s Progress as a work of visionary longing. (Why do we always see images of the English countryside when listening to so many of English composer’s works, particularly the string writing? That is a discussion for another time). Sir Adrian Boult wrote to the composer after hearing the symphony that ‘its serene loveliness … shows, as only music can, what we must work for when this madness [World War II] is over’.

The mysterious opening of the symphony with its distant horn calls brought to mind the closing bars of Britten’s Peter Grimes, composed just a couple of years later. The Romanza is one of the most touching slow movements in all symphonic works, easily a match for Mahler’s more famous Adagietto in his Fifth Symphony. It brought tears to the eyes. Again, it was Augustin Gorisse on cor anglais who caught the ear, together with Juliana Koch (oboe). Pappano and the orchestra received huge applause, it is certainly a great musical partnership in the making, charismatic Pappano being a clear audience favourite.

The performance was recorded live for future release on the LSO’s record label, LSO Live. It was a truly wonderful performance and a fine end to an interesting and varied programme.

John Rhodes

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