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Prom 71 – Debussy and Stravinsky: Orchestre National de France, Daniele Gatti (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 7.9.2010 (MB)


Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Debussy – La mer

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring


Bob Crow and his RMT union members did their best to disrupt this Prom, so it was striking – if the pun may be forgiven – and, more to the point, heartening, to note a near full house in the Royal Albert Hall for the visit of the Orchestre National de France under Daniele Gatti. Gatti is by any standards one of the finest conductors at work today, though is not necessarily always acknowledged as such; perhaps the strong turn out suggested that the English remember fondly, as they should, his distinguished tenure as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This was also a relatively rare visit to these shores from the ONF: all the more reason to be grateful.

The concert opened with a languorous account of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Gatti’s willingness – and ability – to take his time put me in mind of his fine Bayreuth Parsifal. There was a splendid sense of freedom in the flute (Philippe Pierlot) arabesques, bar lines all but obliterated, the ONF’s harps equally delightful of tone. An elegance one can only term Gallic characterised the strings. Later on, Gatti made more of Debussy’s inner parts than is often the case: quite revealing harmonically.

My wayward progress to the Albert Hall – thank you again, Mr Crow – had involved a boat trip, but there was to be no confusing the Thames with the still broader horizons of La mer. The first movement did just what it should, evoking dawn as a coming to life through motivic teeming. There were darker, post-Pelléas intimations too: Debussy is nothing if not ambiguous. The great midday climax was wonderfully rounded and well-prepared, emerging naturally yet dramatically, the ONF brass especially impressive. And yet, the fleeting nature of this triumph remained: does one ever know what next the sea holds in store, physically or metaphysically? Jeux de vagues was elegant, beguiling too, though I wondered whether it might have offered a little more in terms of caprice. Much, I suppose, depends upon expectations. Gatti took the opportunity once again to reveal a great deal of instrumental detail. The Dialogue du vent et de la mer emerged, like the first movement, definitely post-Pelléas but also recognisably post-Wagner, not least in venting of the wind’s fury. I sensed – and given Gatti’s Mahlerian pedigree, perhaps there was something in this – an unexpected kinship with Mahler too, some motivic work recalling the Second Symphony in detail as well as ominous tread. But then, flickering, shimmering mystery was heard, which could only be Debussy, whether in harmony or orchestration. The final blaze of glory suggested another parallel: without straying unidiomatically, Janáček – the Glagolitic Mass? – sprang to mind. Intriguing, and more apt than one might initially suspect.

Stravinsky owed Debussy a great deal, of course, but one could never accuse the Rite of Spring of vagueness. Parallels were drawn, or at least could be perceived, without restricting the specific – in more than one sense – voice of the younger composer. The introductory woodwind solos were very much solos: it was as if characters, related yet distinct, were announcing themselves. There were a few passages during the first part – Auguries of Spring being one – in which I felt Gatti took the music a little too fast, or at least too lightly: the Rite should probably sound more primæval. But this Rite grew in stature, and the ONF’s brass and percussion soon more than compensated, quite shattering in the sage’s music and the Dance of the Earth. This was not an especially Russian Rite, as we have heard of late from, say, Valery Gergiev, but nor are Stravinsky’s own recordings: far from it. Indeed, as the first part progressed, one increasingly could sense the brave new world that would follow the Great War, Varèse suggested more than once. The second part’s introduction certainly possessed that primæval quality occasionally lacking earlier on. Hereafter, Gatti seemed to stress Stravinsky’s cellular construction, yet mystery prevailed, for only a dull interpreter or listener would oppose analysis and the mysterious. Dramatic momentum unerringly built up, leaving one in no doubt that this was a stage work – and, whatever Stravinsky might have claimed, a post-Wagnerian one at that. The true test of success in a performance of the Rite is whether it seems a mere showpiece – assuming the orchestra can play it... – or whether one marvels anew at this extraordinary work. There had been slips, some quite noticeable, and which could well have upset some listeners, but for me, Gatti and the ONF passed with flying colours.

And what a masterstroke it was to follow the Rite with Wagner: the Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger, that work at its most indelibly Schopenhauerian and thereby imbued with the resignation of the conductor’s beloved Parsifal. The ONF, its strings in particular, did Wagner and Gatti proud. My only regret was that we could not hear the entire act – and not solely, or even primarily, so as to defer reacquaintance with the joys of Transport for London.

Mark Berry

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