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PROM 61 - Sibelius, Duparc and Ravel: Magdalena Kožená(mezzo-soprano), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, Royal Albert Hall, London, 31.8.2009 (BBr)

Sibelius: Symphony No.1 in E minor, op.39 (1899)

Duparc: L'invitation au voyage (1870 orch 1892/1895), Extase (1874 rev 1884) (orchestrated by Pierre de Breville), Le manoir de Rosemonde (1879 orch 1912), Chanson triste (1868 orch 1912), Phidylé (1872/1882 orch 1891/1892)

Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé - Suite No.2 (1909/1912)

QUESTION: What do you get when you put the world’s greatest orchestra together with the world’s greatest living conductor?

ANSWER: This concert.

For many years the artistry of the Concertgebouw Orchestra has been without question. The orchestra was formed in 1888 and Jansons is only the sixth chief conductor since then following Willem Kes (1856 – 1934) who led it from 1888 – 1895, when he was succeeded byMengelberg who conducted it for 50 years (1895 – 1945), Eduard van Beinum (1945 – 1959), Bernard Haitink (1961 – 1988) and Riccardo Chailly (1988 – 2004). It has recorded regularly, there is reputed to be over 1100 recordings, and it regularly broadcasts live from its eponymous hall on Nederlands Radio. But even with all this exposure it’s good to be able to actually hear it in the flesh. We weren’t to be disappointed.

Starting with Sibelius’s 1stSymphony, a strange work with which to begin and during the opening clarinet recitative there was some restlessness in the audience, but as soon as the allegro got under way Jansons had us gripped. This early work is not typical of the later Sibelius we know – 4thSymphony onwards – and it is full of the influence of Tchaikovsky and Jansons brought out the Russianness of the music, especially in the outer movements. The big climaxes, and there are several, were very well built, gradually, over a period of time, Jansons allowed the music to grow and make the desired effect, and they were overpowering in their intensity. The slow introduction to the finale was very impressive, nervy and with an edge seldom heard here. The middle section of the same movement – which I always think of as a forerunner of Sibelius’s later Nightride and Sunrise, op.55 (1908) – seems to be a kind of dash through the snow on a horse drawn sledge and it’s interesting to note that one of the sources of inspiration for Nightride given by the composer was just such a ride he undertook from Helsinki to Kervo "at some time around the turn of the century", exactly the time he ws writing this Symphony. The big tune, at the end, was resplendent in its fullness and the boldness of the closing pizzicato was as blunt a statement of conclusion as one could have hoped for. Nothing about romantic angst here, just an unequivocal perfect cadence saying goodbye. A magnificent performance.

I have often felt that Duparc’s songs should not be let out on their own, they are such personal utterances that they should be savoured in the privacy of ones own home, with the lights dimmed and a good glass of vintage port to hand. They are perfect miniatures, word settings of the very highest order and, unlike so many others, they transfer well from piano to orchestra. The five chosen here - from a mere handful of 16 he composed – are amongst the very best. L'invitation au voyage is a setting of Baudelaire, full of sensuality, and with the most impressionistic of orchestrations. Extase is a relaxed work, and contains a marvelous epilogue, which Jansons didn’t allow to take over the whole song. Lotte Lehmann made the comment that perhaps something like madness rages through Le manoir de Rosemonde, describing it as a frantic persuit, and Jansons allowed the orchestra its full voice here, with Kožená injecting just the right amount of desperation into her interpretation. Chason triste is just that, a sad song, and it was delivered with the utmost simplicity, but Phidylé is deeply emotional, with a climax of shimmering beauty. Kožená sang these delicate flowers to perfection, with good diction, and a superb understanding of the music. She was brilliantly partnered by Jansons and his players. As a treat she returned to the platform to give us the Ballade des femmes de Paris, the third of Debussy’s Trois Ballades de François Villon (1910) in a very racy, and humorous, performance, telling us that no women in the world can gossip quite like Parisian women!

The 2ndSuite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé is a real party piece for an orchestra of this calibre, allowing for virtuoso playing and really showing off the sonorities of the band. Jansons built the opening Daybreak well, allowing each strand of the woodwind phrases to speak clearly, accompanied by the most delicate harp sounds. When it came the sunrise was glorious and full bodied. The following Pantomime was full of sensuality and restrained passion. Then came the final Bacchanale, the orgy which brings things to a tempestuous close. Here was orchestral playing of the highest degree, each section reveling in the chance to show off their abilities to best effect. This performance was outstanding.

Encores were demanded, encores were offered. A gorgeous account of Debussy’s Clair de lune and, to end, The Wild Bears from the 2ndWand of Youth Suite by Elgar, which made me wonder why Jansons hasn’t given the Elgar Symphonies for he has the ability to fully understand the structure of such large scale works and he would do them very well indeed. Food for thought there I think.

Bob Briggs

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