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Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; Les Illuminations, Debussy, La mer; Varese Amériques: John Mark Ainsley (tenor), BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. James Conlon, Barbican Hall, 05.05.2006 (ME)

This ‘sequence of striking musical portraits’ certainly provided a most refreshing change to the usual order of programming: one has grown accustomed to having to suffer through twenty minutes of a piece listed in terms of, say, ‘Nim – Nim: Cacophonies and Friandises for Pennywhistle, Jew’s Harp and Fire Siren, Opus 322’ after which the sheer joy of something like Les Illuminations passes all too quickly, to be followed by one stodgy symphony after the interval. On this occasion, someone had really thought about the order of events so that the endurance test came at the very end, after the highlight of the vocal piece, and the first half was no lightweight, with two major works given widely contrasting performances, with one merely acceptable, the other touching true greatness – but then, that corresponds with their respective merits anyway, as far as I am concerned.

Debussy’s La mer is often referred to as ‘the first modern symphony’ (whatever that means) or as an ‘impressionist’ work – a title which the composer hated. Certainly, Conlon had decided that it was not a series of impressions at all, but a carefully constructed set of movements to be played almost like an introduction to the orchestra: the playing was not without finesse but the overall feel was lacklustre. The opposite was true of the pieces from Peter Grimes which I don’t think I have ever heard delivered with such conviction and such dramatic contrasts. ‘Dawn’ was delicate as gossamer, ‘Sunday Morning’ as characterful as if half the cast of the opera could be seen walking on that beach, ‘Moonlight’ deeply brooding in its sense of foreboding, and ‘Storm’ more evocative than I have ever heard it of Britten’s annotated instructions ‘Seascape – (whole sea), ‘waves’, ‘wind’, ‘spray blowing’ and ‘still centre (Grimes’ ecstasy). James Conlon may not be the starriest of conductors, but this performance had the kind of star quality that is all too rare.

Les Illuminations was rightly placed as the evening’s major work, and this was the finest performance of it which I have ever experienced. Conlon managed a feat seemingly impossibly elusive to just about every other conductor: to bring out all the vibrant, sometimes brash, sometimes lush colour of Britten’s orchestration without once drowning out the soloist. John Mark Ainsley’s singing was a paragon: agile, beautifully coloured and flexible, the voice gave every last ounce of meaning to lines such as ‘Oh! Nos os sont revêtus d’un nouveau corps amoureux’ (Our bones are re-clad in a new loving body) and touched the heights of lyric grace in ‘et je danse’ and the languid, erotic phrases of ‘Antique.’ Wonderful.

Well might the chap behind me murmur ‘I want to go home now’ after that, but at least it made the subsequent endurance test less gruesome. I share Edgard Varèse’s great love for New York City, but fortunately I tend to express that love by, say, shopping rather than anything more ‘creative.’ Varèse’s Amériques certainly gives musical expression to his feelings – ‘the whole wonderful river symphony which moved me more than anything ever had before…the mere word ‘America’ meant all discoveries, all adventures.’ However it does it a little too much, too often: the first hearing of the fire-siren is fun, for example, but after that it becomes embarrassing: the programme tells us that the percussion at one point provides the effect of ‘great skyscrapers rearing up above teeming traffic,’ but such an ‘impression’ was not exactly what I took from the piece. The truly memorable performances, and works, of this rapturously received concert were both by Benjamin Britten.

Melanie Eskenazi




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)