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Messiaen, Pintscher, Ravel, Stravinsky:  Truls Mørk (cello); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Matthias Pintscher,  Barbican Hall, 14.11.2006 (CC)


Interesting and innovative programming does not seem to appeal to UK audiences overmuch, it would appear. The Messiaen was the late Un Sourire (‘A Smile’), of 1991. Written to mark the Mozart bicentenary (it was first performed in Paris on December 5th, 1991, the exact anniversary of Mozart’s death).  The smile of the title refers to the fact that whenever Messiaen though of Mozart, apparently he smiled (as well he might). Certainly some soaring string phrases seem to imply a smile of affectionate remembrance while the more rhythmic passages remind us just who the author of this little ten-minute piece is. Un Sourire is closely related to Eclairs de l’Au’delà … (both breathe the rarefied air of late Messiaen). A batonless Pintscher guided the BBCSO effectively through the score, although the strings of this particular orchestra seldom truly glow, and here was no exception.

It is always good to have a composer conducting his own works, and Pintscher here led the first UK performance of his Cello Concerto, Reflections on Narcissus (2004-5). The Narcissus myth has been an important source of inspiration for Pintscher (cf his The Metamorphosis of Narcissus of 1992 for solo cello and chamber ensemble). Pintscher himself uses the term ‘magical theatre’ in conjunction with his music, and indeed it was the imaginary theatre of Henze that sprung to mind in this long work. There is no doubting Pintscher’s imagination or skill (the work is powerfully and effectively orchestrated) but there was a distinct feeling that the work outstayed its welcome somewhat. One could feel that there was a withheld narrative thread – one was aware of its presence without being aware of exactly what was happening.

The opening seemed to emerge nicely from the Messiaen (similarly ethereal), but soon plotted its own territory in a more hard-hitting, identifiable avant garde world. The cello part, excellently and confidently played by Truls Mørk, was frequently in the concertante manner, a first among equals. Good to be in the hall, too, for even though the concert had microphones present, it was doubtful they would pick up on some of Mørk’s truly ppppp harmonics. Pintscher’s occasional introduction of the principal cello as a second soloist duetting with the soloist proper was impressive (both players in their own instruments‘ stratosphere). Pintscher is a clearly talented composer and it is good to hear music that is thoroughly uncompromising these days, but perhaps he could learn the value of less is more?.


The Ravel of the second half was the Shéhérazade Overture (not to be confused with the vocal work). Written in 1898 and subtitled ‘Ouverture de féerie’, this is the surviving fragment of a projected opera. It is fascinating to be able to hear it, although the solo oboe opening was strangely literal – only the addition of more woodwind brought in an aura of magic. There is sweet peace here, with warmth being added to the mixture later on. The piece inhabits a similar world to Stravinsky’s Firebird, and it was indeed the 1945 Suite from this ballet that rounded off the concert. It is the addition of several movements from the ballet to the skeleton of the earlier Suites of 1911 and 1919 plus a certain tidying up of textures that lends interest to this choice. Pintscher led the BBCSO in an impressive account. The opening’s ominous tread boded well. Tuning was not always spot on from the woodwind, though, but what was more important (and interesting) was that Pintscher seemed to want to highlight the proximity of Firebird to Petrushka, rather than call in the debt to Rimsky. The delicious lightness of the ‘Dance of the Princesses’ (a Scherzo) and the huge wallops of the ‘Infernal Dance’ testified to an orchestra that was clearly having fun (the Final Hymn similarly brought out the orchestra’s best).

A stimulating event: London needs more concerts that are as intelligently programmed as this one.


Colin Clarke




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