Leonard Slatkin’s imaginative
BBC SO programme opened the RPS Music Awards Winners’ Concert with a
rarity: Maurice Ravel’s Menuet antique. Ravel was 20 when he
composed the piece and made his orchestral transcription of it in 1929.
This rather effete and lightweight composition came across as uninspired
– indeed, hardly recognisable as a work by Ravel. Under Slatkin’s slack
and foursquare baton the music never ignited and it all sounded curiously
heavy textured and English, reminiscent of early Bridge or Britten.
This was followed by a very laboured
- and excessively loud - reading of Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante
defunte (1899, orch. 1910). The opening horns were too harsh, and
Slatkin’s dragging tempi broke the flow of the music. The orchestral
textures sounded too heavy for such an intricate and delicate depiction
of grief for a dead princess.
After such a ponderous, insensitive
performance, Slatkin suddenly changed gear and seemed to assume a greater
affinity with Ravel’s La valse (1919-20). This was one of the
most sinister and haunting performances I have heard of this score.
The opening double basses and ‘cellos had a misty, sinister, throbbing
tone to them which vividly set the mood of this dark reading. Slatkin
perfectly judged the biting cross rhythms and shifts in tempi which
often defeat conductors in what is arguably the most difficult of Ravel’s
scores to conduct. Slatkin also got incredible detail from his orchestra,
preserving complete clarity even in the most violent and turbulent passages.
Particularly noteworthy were the detail and depth from the bass clarinet
and trombones. This piece is often merely treated as a spectacular show
case for orchestra but under Slatkin’s penetrating direction he made
it sound mad and menacing, far closer to the voluptuous violence of
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: a truly disturbing performance with the
BBC SO on top form.
The Nash Ensemble took over the
proceedings with Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor,
Op. 15. What was extraordinary about this performance was that each
of the movements had its own particular mood and sound world, and the
players took on unique voices, tones and colours accordingly. Whilst
pianist Ian Brown played seated behind the trio, and therefore never
laid his eyes on them, the interplay was perfectly timed and blended.
The first movement had a ghostly
intimacy while the Scherzo was played with a fleeting, sprightly
grace. Some of the most moving playing I have experienced in a long
time came in the Adagio which was brooding and despairing. Here
the piano and the string tones were nervously hushed and vulnerable,
melting into a fragile space. Lawrence Power’s viola had a particularly
poignant sound, producing excessively dark shadings and one could actually
feel the nervous tension in the hall. The concluding Allegro
was played with charm, humour and the right degree of brio, with violinist
Marianne Thorsen and cellist Paul Watkins producing a witty interplay
One could not pick out an individual
member for praise because they all played with such great unity. A highly
memorable performance of a much neglected work. After such a sublime
performance it is not difficult to see why the Nash Ensemble won the
2003 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for the Chamber Ensemble Category.
The concert concluded with Arthur
Honegger’s Le Roi David – symphonic psalm (1921) in a majestic
and beautifully prepared account by Slatkin and chorus-master, Stephen
The composer wrote the work for
René Morax's Mézières Theatre de Jorat in the Swiss
countryside (and it was this composition more than any other that put
him on the map of international recognition). While the plot of Le
Roi David is based upon the biblical myths surrounding the narrative
of King David it is the orchestral score itself which is inventive and
Like Mahler, Honegger uses pastiche
elements and hybrid sounds to evoke certain moods: the work opens with
overtly kitsch oriental themes from the sinuous woodwind that one often
hears in ‘B’ movies in films depicting Arabian and Middle Eastern ‘exotic
orientalism’. Throughout I was mesmerised by the starkness and purity
of the scoring which had great intensity through economy of expression
– notably the writing for trombones and percussion which far outshone
the banality of the narrative itself. The concluding choruses with full
orchestra were simply intoxicating.
The versatile soprano Nicole Tibbels
was a late replacement for Susan Bullock (who in turn was a substitute
for Emma Bell) and proved ideal, producing rather angular, almost manically
strident sounds but with exquisite control and colour. Her vivacious
vibrato contrasted well with the reserve and eloquence of mezzo-soprano
Louise Callinan. Tenor Werner Güra lacked presence, delivering
a rather dull and introverted tone as if he was singing back to front
drowning the notes in his lungs. The short role of Lucy Scott’s Witch
of Endor was aptly wild, verging on the hysterical, but without
falling into farcical histrionics; one wanted more.
Narrator François Le Roux
spoke his lines with invigorating gusto and verve, stitching the 27
sections of the three part score together and serving as the backbone
to the score. But it was the BBC SO Chorus that stole the show, particularly
in the closing passages which were spellbinding and exuberant. Slatkin’s
conducting was exemplary, perfectly balancing his forces without the
chorus drowning the orchestra, or vice versa. Throughout the BBC SO
produced a seamless succession of exotic sounds giving the music a sense
of chamber-like intimacy and elegance.
This concert was recorded for
broadcast on Monday 13th October at 7.30 on BBC Radio 3.