Myung-Wha Chung conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique
de Radio France in a programme of works by Berlioz, Bruch, Messiaen
and Ravel. Opening the evening, Berlioz’ Roman Carnival overture
was conducted in too sedate a manner and lacked panache and sparkle.
It was too respectable, unfestive and tame - not so much a Carnival
as a Fête worse than death.
The evening was a family affair, with Chung's celebrated
sister, Kyung-Wha Chung, playing the ever-popular Bruch
Violin Concerto. She played athletically, her whole body moving in swift
contortions while her face expressed ecstatic elevation. Her reading
was sensitive, without affectation or sentimentality, and her tone was
taut and never strident. She is arguably the finest interpreter of the
Bruch Violin Concerto today. Her playing of the adagio in particular
was ravishing. It was easy to understand why Richard Strauss appropriated
a phrase from this movement which he directly quoted in his Alpine Symphony.
Her brother's conducting perfectly complemented her performance.
Written in 1932, Messiaen's L'ascension is his
most important early orchestral work. It bears the stamp of sensuous
Catholic kitsch which has become a hallmark of the composer's oeuvre.
Certain sections of L'ascension echo Messiean's seminal work,
the Turangalia Symphony (1946-8).
The opening movement - 'Majesty of Christ asking Glory
from his Father' - scored only for brass and woodwind, was disappointing.
The majestic chorale was marred by bad brass intonation; the brass section
were not together and clearly under-rehearsed. The following movement,
'Serene Hallelujahs of a Soul Seeking Heaven' although sharply punctuated
by woodwind, nevertheless lacked penetrative bite; it was all too low
key and lacking in the necessary exotic mood. The scherzo, 'Hallelujah
on the Trumpet, Hallelujah on the Cymbal', was well paced and well played.
Particularly powerful were the cellos and double basses, but all was
let down by a dull percussion department which might as well have been
playing in another room.
The final movement, 'Prayer of Christ Rising to His
father', is scored only for strings. Here the conductor was at his best,
letting the music play itself, without imposing the emotive grunts or
histrionic gestures which this movement (like the adagio of Mahler's
9th Symphony) can often provoke. Chung paced the music perfectly, allowing
it to float and never drag and the strings played with intense luminosity.
Indeed, this suave French string section easily outclasses any London
orchestra in its sheer voluptuousness.
The final work Ravel's La Valse was a sleep
walking affair. Chung's reading was ponderously slow and lacked any
tension or sense of urgency. Chung had no understanding of the aura
of menace and manic acceleration that La Valse requires; the
frightening dance of death element was totally lacking, and was more
akin to sedate ballroom dancing.
By way of an encore, the Promenaders were treated to
a vigorous performance of Bizet's Carmen Act One prelude, a bonne
bouche which went down very well.
Overall, the conductor did his best, but it was his