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S & H Concert Review

Ravel, Fauré, Honegger; Nicole Tibbels (sop), Louise Callinan (mezzo), Werner Güra (ten), François Le Roux (nar), Lucy Scott (Witch of Endor), BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; Nash Ensemble; Leonard Slatkin (con); Barbican Centre, 11th October, 2003 (AR)


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 of dialogue.

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 Jackson.

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 unusual.

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.

Alex Russell


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