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Festival d’Aix en Provence 2009 (3) – Haydn and Ravel: Lang Lang (piano), Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix en Provence, 8.7.2009 (MB)

Haydn – Symphony no.91 in E-flat major
Haydn – Piano concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII/11
Ravel – Piano concerto in G major
Ravel – Ma mère l’oye

This really was a ‘game of two halves’, the only difference being that the excellent half consisted of the first and last items, whilst the two concertos, performed either side of the interval, received solo performances of an uncomprehending vulgarity that beggared belief. I had entertained the vain hope that Lang Lang might yet redeem himself, following an execrable performance of Brahms’s first piano concerto, which I heard in Berlin last year. If anything, these performances were even worse.

The concert started well, with a fine performance of Haydn’s ninety-first symphony, the programming choice of a true Haydn connoisseur, since it is a marvellous work, yet little heard even by Haydn’s standards. Sir Simon Rattle elected to employ a relatively but not excessively small orchestra, strings in the proportion Although the Grand Théâtre de Provence is a reasonably large space, the orchestra did not sound undernourished. The first movement introduction sounded full of hope rather than grave, with woodwind timbres as beautiful as one could ever hope to hear. Articulation was sprightly throughout. Even the exposition was full of contrast, without seeming disconnected: counterpoint in the bridge passage was clearly projected, whilst the second subject’s ‘character’ was full of grace. Following András Schiff’s bizarre experiment with the Philharmonia, employing natural horns with an otherwise modern orchestra (including other brass), it was a great relief, especially during the development section, to hear the superlative Berlin horns. Rattle could not but relish a modulation, breathtaking in an almost Schubertian fashion, in the recapitulation, yet without undue exaggeration. The Andante was flowing but not rushed, its variations unfolding delectably, that with solo bassoon (the first), proving a particular joy. We had a sense of the neo-Baroque but also of the rustic, the latter heightened by pairs of oboes and horns, and the principal cello. The minuet was taken fast, a little too much for my taste, and seemed a touch over-directed, the fussiness to which Rattle can sometimes be prone once again exhibiting itself. Yet if the minuet wanted naturalness, the trio was nicely relaxed, full of colour and grace, and with a true sense of chamber music writ (relatively) large. The finale opened with a Mozartian grace, which has seemed lacking in Rattle’s own Mozart, followed by a warranted orchestral display. Interplay between the two quite rightly proved the dramatic material for the rest of the movement, with a welcome touch of humour projected, without underlining, in an unexpected repetition at the end of the movement.

The Haydn D major concerto started well enough, with nice antiphonal response between the first and second violins (both sections reduced by one instrument apiece). Enter Lang Lang. My first reaction was that his was a genuinely beautiful instrumental tone but it was not long before tiresome ‘effects’ reared their head – and, of course, those pained expressions, followed by a self-satisfied grin, as if he knew he were playing a gullible audience. Unmotivated dynamic and tempo variations obliterated all sense of musical line. Something approaching absolute zero was reached with a preposterous cadenza, accorded a superficial sense of extemporisation, yet clearly rehearsed, not least since the orchestral players knew precisely when to pick up their instruments. An irrelevant quotation from Beethoven’s fifth symphony led to music which sounded as though it might have emanated from Tin Pan Alley. Once again, the orchestral opening to the second movement sounded full of grace, highlighting the paradox that Rattle’s Haydn can sometimes sound more Mozartian than his Mozart. Soon, of course, we were subjected to further soloistic posturing. Piano-stool conducting, unrelated to what the orchestra was playing, heralded more of the same so far as the performance was concerned. This time, the cadenza opened with sub-Lisztian fioritura and descended into a meandering exchange between Broadway and cod-Rachmaninov. The ‘Hungarian’ aspects of the finale were predictably over-indulged, and arguably so in the orchestra too, but that was the least of the movement’s problems. The distracting – had there been any musical substance from which to distract – movements of the soloist reached a climax when I thought the pianist was about to fall from his stool. If only he had... His foot-tapping grew in volume too. I should not have minded the sub-Bartókian exaggerations, if there had been any sense of how the solo part fitted together, but no. This was nothing more than a circus act. All the technique in the world does not guarantee any degree of musical understanding.

I wondered whether the Ravel G major concerto might prove more bearable; it did not. The first movement was taken very fast. Perhaps Rattle simply wanted to get it over with; who could blame him? The Berlin Philharmonic sounded lighter than one generally hears in this music, closer to Gershwin: a valid interpretative choice, I suppose, but not one to which I warm. Lang Lang’s glissandi were just that, with no sense of musical meaning. After that, much of his part was heavy, choppy, augmented by an additional part for tapped foot. Accents were arbitrarily – absurdly – placed on certain notes, with the climax milked as if it were once again imitation Rachmaninov. At least the BPO’s harp managed briefly to mesmerise. The opening cantilena of the slow movement illustrated how to make one hear every bar line. Then, suddenly, Lang moved from the metronomic to the gratuitously indulgent (and heavy-handed). This was graceless and forced; indeed, never have I heard Ravel sound less like Ravel. Later on, the pianist seemed to have no conception of when his part was of an ‘accompanying’ nature, merely carrying on in his narcissistic, attention-seeking way. If he could do less damage in the finale, it was not for the want of trying, some terrible clattering sounds pouring forth. Incomprehensibly to me, the audience erupted with approval at the end. For one dreadful moment, I feared that we were to be ‘treated’ to an encore. Small mercies and all that...

Ma mère l’oye
came as balm to the senses and soul after such a farrago. In the opening movement, I had a sense of the orchestra being the instrument, played by Rattle; out of this, other, single instruments emerged. There were some intriguing hints, especially earlier on, of pastel Wagner, though there was much that was sharper-edged too. A winning spring to rhythms allowed the various dances to work their magic. The contrabassoon’s vivid characterisation of the Beast was an especial joy. However, there were so many solo virtues, that I could not list them all: silky solos from leader, Guy Braunstein, richness of tone from the principal viola, a woodwind section full of character, not least when it came to the flute cuckoo... Nor should I neglecet to mention the superlative percussion section. Finally, Le jardin féerique would surely have touched the hearts of children and adults alike. The strings were possessed of an almost Elgarian nobility and the final climax was truly exultant. Ravel and his performers proved beyond a shadow of doubt that childlike is in no sense equivalent to trivial.

Mark Berry


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