ENDNOTES, 2nd December 2015
In this edition: BBC Symphony Orchestra in Gallic mood at the Barbican * Edward Gardner conducts Janacek * Rare Grieg piano music from Somm Records
Only a few days after the appalling terrorist outrage in Paris, the BBC Symphony Orchestra took to the platform at the Barbican to perform a concert of Gallic music (a programme which had been scheduled long before the gunmen ran amok in the French capital). Clearly, many London concertgoers had decided to stay at home in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, as the Barbican seemed to be only half-full. Normally, a programme which included the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique – not to mention Jean-Efflam Bavouzet performing Ravel – would have attracted a much larger audience, but what the hall lacked in numbers and atmosphere, the orchestra made up in its thoughtful and compelling performances.
Needless to say, the artists – which included a relative newcomer to British concert platforms, conductor Pascal Rophé* (he replaced an indisposed Francois Xavier-Roth) – dedicated the evening to the victims of the Paris attacks, a dedication which drew warm applause from the audience. I hope that the Radio 3 audience that night included many French listeners, enjoying the inspiring music of their country in an immaculate realisation by one of Britain’s greatest orchestras.
A work by Pierre Boulez had originally been programmed, but this was replaced by César Franck’s 1882 symphonic poem, Le chausseur maudit (‘The Accursed Huntsman’) – a quarter-of-an-hour-long curtain-raiser full of late-romantic forest murmurs and a growing sense of diabolic doom. Franck was born in Liège, a city whose Belgian status belies a French cultural hegemony – so it is perhaps right to see Franck as a French composer. And yet his music does have a Germanic drive to it, rather like the works of Vincent D’Indy, that French Wagnerian. However, the next composer on the BBC SO’s menu was Maurice Ravel; a deeply private, inscrutable, fastidious, almost classical figure transported to the 20th-century, and as profoundly French as it is possible to be. Franck’s 19th-century forests gave way to the light and shade of Ravel’s modern impressionism – in this concert, the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1929-30), written for Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, Ludwig.
I have never encountered even a semi half-hearted review of anything undertaken by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and it is little wonder – considering this artist’s total self-assurance and possession of the stage; his astonishing ability to bring finer shades even to the fine shading of Ravel; and the sense that he brings to his performance – even with a large orchestra – of being within the fibres and fabric of a chamber group. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has played this concerto many times, but its low, deep, formless, almost grumbling opening from the deeper register of the orchestra has seldom sounded so mysterious; with the more “open air”, exultant passages which follow achieving a great sonority. The work’s harder edges – its post-World War One “angles” and shapes, and occasional coldness were all summoned and highlighted in this excellent performance. After the interval (and there was very little of the usual bustle in the bars, in fact, everything was very subdued indeed) the ensemble delivered a remarkable reading of the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, the French romantic who took Beethoven’s concept of programme, scene-setting music and added huge brush strokes and grand gestures to it. This five-movement symphony – a love-sick wandering through French fields to a ballroom; back to a countryside menaced by approaching thunder; and then to a terrifying execution at a scaffold – followed for good measure by a witches’ Sabbath – dates from 1830, with revisions made a year later, and once again, in 1845. For such a pre-Wagnerian work, the Symphonie Fantastique sounds as though it belongs to much later in the century.
Pascal Rophé’s conducting style was most interesting: an intense direction of events (as if conducting one of the contemporary music ensembles in which he first made his name), but without overblown or over-dramatic arm gestures, and yet conveying much through his clearly technical mode of operation. But this did not mean that there was restraint all the way through – far from it, in the terrifying, braying brass accompanying the March to the Scaffold, with percussion that thudded through this dream of imminent death; and then the shrieking, almost atonal moments in the nightmare torrents and torments of the finale.
The acoustic of the Barbican Hall is such that the music is revealed very much in its bare bones – as if a piercing light is shining on each section of the orchestra. The sound is not exactly dry, but in sharp relief – and it seemed, at least in the first movement, that the clear, unfussy, astringent approach to the Symphonie took the BBC Symphony Orchestra close to the performance style of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the London Classical Players, especially in the economy and “attack” of the violins and violas.
One of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s regular conductors is Edward Gardner, an artist of what might be called the younger generation, but at the age of 41, already a figure of great musical authority and international achievement. On a recent recording for the Chandos label (CHSA 5156), Mr. Gardner raises his baton at the Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway – eliciting playing of pinpoint accuracy and polish from the players from the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra in the music of Leos Janacek (1854-1928). Works such as Jealousy, the Violin Concerto (The Wandering of a Little Soul), The Ballad of Blanik make this a CD rich in central-European flavour. But the greatest piece, by far, on the collection is the tense symphonic poem, Taras Bulba, based on a tale by Gogol about the heroism of a legendary Russian warrior as he fights to liberate his ancient lands (the steppes of the Ukraine) from the Poles. A dim light of legend and melancholy permeates the opening of the work, the Chandos sound-engineers capturing the yearning woodwind phrases and the gloom-laden organ passage which floats above and “behind” the orchestra – adding to the feel of ancient prophecy and landscape.
Finally, folklore is very much celebrated in a remarkable new CD from Somm (CD 0154), a re-mastering of an RCA record from 1978 in which the composer and pianist, John McCabe (who passed away this year – a great loss to music) performs rare works by Grieg. His Stimmungen (Moods) opens the collection, and this seven-piece pot-pourri includes a Studie (Hommage a Chopin), Folk Tune from Valders, and The Mountaineer’s Song. Norwegian Peasant Dances, Op. 72 follow – the soloist bringing to life scenes from an idealised world: spring dances, bridal marches, a tune for a goat-horn, a Bridal Procession for Goblins, and a Tune from the Fairy Hill. Perhaps McCabe’s inner sensitivity as a composer has worked a magic here: he certainly brings tenderness (but never over-romanticism) to Grieg’s dreams of a world beyond our own. A splendid tribute to John McCabe and something of a coup for Somm in finding and presenting this evergreen recording made nearly 40 years ago. With its Nordic feeling, I have no hesitation in recommending the CD as an ideal present for – should I say, yule?
STUART MILLSON is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
*Pascal Rophé studied at the Paris Conservatoire and won second prize at the 1988 Besancon competition for conductors. He worked with Pierre Boulez, and has conducted a number of orchestras worldwide, including the Philharmonic forces of Radio France, the NHK Orchestra in Japan, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra