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PROM 53: Ravel and Walton, Bernarda Fink (soprano), European Union Youth Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, 24 August, 2005 (AO)


What intrigued me about this programme was the possibilities it presented for understanding William Walton.  Perhaps it was the Spitfire Prelude, or just youthful aversion to Establishment figures like Eric Coates, but I never got up to speed on Walton.  My loss, of course.  So this Prom was for me an opportunity to learn Walton from the very different perspective of Ravel. Ravel was able to transform Vaughan Williams' music even though he himself had composed relatively little at the time, because he was a genuine original.  He liberated Vaughan Williams from the insularity of Stanford and Parry. Ravel, said Vaughan Williams, “taught me that the heavy contrapuntal Teutonic manner was not necessary”.  Walton certainly started out a rebel, as his astounding Facade attests, and with his First Symphony firmly pinned his colours to the mast of modernism.  Its popularity shows that it remains the “acceptable” face of modernism for many: the Royal Albert Hall was packed out, and the audience went wild, cheering between movements, and wonder of wonders, stomping their feet in unison and shouting bravo at the top of their voices. It was a wilder ovation than I've seen for many more innovative works.

Rapsodie espagnole (1907) and Schéhérazade (1903) show Ravel at an early stage in his career, exploring the potential of new, exotic sound worlds beyond the mainstream music at the time. Parts of the Rapsodie date from 1895, making its vision even more arresting.   How incredible that Prélude á la nuit must have sounded, hovering between tones and semi tones, the silences as expressive as the sounds.  The Malangueña is equally elusive, the melody built up, only to be suddenly cut out and started again in a different form. These pivotal turns need to be sharp and clear.  Gardiner was concentrating on the fluid and couldn't quite get his players to make the changes as precise as they could be.

Similar lack of precision in the playing marred what could have been a  very good Schéhérazade.  Bernarda Fink was in excellent form, her voice ringing pure and clear, filling the cavernous Albert Hall, well above the orchestra.  As with his earlier overture on the theme, Ravel used exoticism to develop new ideas: the exotic touches aren't there for their own sake.  That glorious “Asie! Asie! Asie!” refers to the idea of the east, not Asia itself.  I prefer approaches that emphasise the imagination rather than obvious “orientalism”, so Fink's clarity appealed greatly to me.  Gardiner and the orchestra, however, were still in fluid, swirling mode and didn't match Fink in her interpretation.  She was good enough, though, to convey the songs as stories, vignettes of wider scenes.  By sheer expressiveness, she made the words “pour interrompre le conte avec art” (to interrupt the tale with artfulness, to use a translation not in the Proms booklet) sound frighteningly sinister, as if she knew what happened when the tale ends....  She also managed the soaring arc of sound on “Entre !” which is so critical to the structure of the cycle.  But it would be unfair to expect the EUYO to play like Cleveland under Boulez. There were many good moments, when their soloists rose to the occasion.

The orchestra must have relished rehearsing Walton, for they were completely animated and on message from the first bars.  This symphony must be wonderful to play, with opportunities for nearly every musician to make his or her own mark.  It's also ideal for a young, vigorous orchestra as it makes physical demands on the players.  It is rousing music, bursting with energy and huge, powerful shapes: a sort of Rite of Spring twenty years after Stravinsky.  As a statement of intent, Walton was certainly making an impact that would have shook up English audiences at the time. Crescendo follows crescendo, fanfare after fanfare.  Just when you think they'll subside, more shiny special effects flash past.  When the five kettle drums, cymbals, gong and big bass explode, followed by trombones and trumpets, you know why Walton's music suited dance and film.  Gardiner and the orchestra rose to the occasion, and deserved all the thundering applause they got.   It is a showpiece, but Ravel lasts longer in the soul.


Anne Ozorio  


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