City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: Second Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 24 & Sunday 25 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This second weekend of the Debussy Festival featured a similar mix of orchestral, song and instrumental events, held at various venues in Birmingham in addition to Symphony Hall and extending over the broad spectrum of Debussy’s music to include several less familiar items.

Saturday evening focussed on ‘Sacred Debussy’, and opened with his prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (1910) in an orchestration by Colin Matthews faithful to its spirit. The CBSO then vacated the platform for Messiaen’s motet O sacrum convivium (1937), fervently sung by the CBSO Chorus under Simon Halsey and preceded by Bach’s Dorian Toccata and Fugue. Its methodical progress was ideally complemented by Dieu parmi nous, concluding Messiaen’s large-scale cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (1935) with a panache to which Thomas Trotter was no less responsive. Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane (1904) ended the first half with an allure and poise that Suzy Wilkinson-Kawalec conveyed in full measure; CBSO assistant conductor Jonathan Bloxham securing an elegant and fastidious response from the strings.

After the interval, a rare chance to hear virtually the whole of Debussy’s incidental music for Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play La Martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911). Not, then, the 20-minute ‘symphonic fragments’ arranged by André Caplet (who also undertook much of the original orchestration) or the hour-long complete score with narration, but a 35-minute hybrid where the music for the five acts was amalgamated into a four-movement ‘choral symphony’. With its hieratic modality and austere if never merely archaic polyphony, this is arguably the most emotionally affecting of Debussy’s later works and was superbly sung by the CBSO Chorus. Sopranos Ilse Eerens and Katja Stuber were effortless in their solo parts and Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (below) drawing an eloquent response from the CBSO. Undoubtedly a highlight of this festival.

On to Sunday and an early afternoon concert of ‘Exotic Debussy’, opening with another three Preludes (1913) – the ironic wit of Minstrels, Mussorgskian heft of La puerta del vino and the bracing humour of General Lavine – Eccentric – once again heard in orchestrations by Colin Matthews responsive more to the images being evoked than the music as conceived for piano. Bloxham led the CBSO in a spirited account of the ‘Pas de six’ from Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1956), then Graźinytė-Tyla presided over two sections from Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (1910) – the piquant Orientalism of Laideronette and the encroaching rapture of Le jardin féerique, both enticingly rendered yet an unsatisfying close to a rather piecemeal first half. A shame the Ravel ballet was not heard in full, as this has long been a CBSO speciality.

There was nothing piecemeal about the second half, with Graźinytė-Tyla taking charge of the CBSO Youth Orchestra for a complete rendering of Debussy’s Images. His largest orchestral work when heard complete, this is difficult to bring off as a totality though this account came close. The ominous understatement of Gigues was well conveyed despite an occasional lack of subtlety, then the central triptych that is Ibéria gave this capable and enthusiastic outfit its head in the traversal from sultry street-life, through nocturnal rumination, to festal celebration – the overall sequence being projected with verve and immediacy. Yet the closing Rondes de printemps was even more successful, its oblique evocation of rural revelry given cumulative impetus such as made for a more than usually conclusive end to this wide-ranging sequence.

The mid-afternoon ‘Tombeau de Debussy’ juxtaposed pieces from the supplement published by La Revue musicale in 1920 with commissions under BCMG’s Sound Investment Scheme. Jungeun Park’s Tombeau de Claude Debussy found violinist Alexandra Wood, cellist Ulrich Heinen and pianist Richard Uttley (above) evoking the composer’s death in darkly ironic terms, then the oblique tonality of Dukas’s La plainte, au loin, du faune … seemed as much a memorial to the creative impasse as to its passing. Highly sensitive here, Uttley was no less probing in the moody ‘Sostenuto rubato’ that Bartók incorporated into his Eight Improvisations; soprano Ruby Hughes joining him for the whimsical profundity of Satie’s setting of Lamartine in En souvenir. Sinta Wallur’s Tagore Fireflies sets three brief verses by the Indian poet in music whose ornamented vocal was complemented by the piano’s gamelan-like patterning. Wood and Heinen found requisite plangency in the first movement of Ravel’s Duo; then cellist and soprano took on engaging theatricality for Frédéric Pattar’s setting of Maeterlinck in (… de qui parlez-vous?). Uttley captured the bluesy elegance of Goossens’s Pièce, before Julian Anderson’s Tombeau united the musicians in a setting of Mallarmé’s tribute to Edgar Allen Poe whose chiselled vocal writing and guitar-like sonorities made for a provocative ending.

The early-evening programme of ‘Natural Debussy’ commenced with the arresting cameo of flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic playing Debussy’s plaintive Syrinx (1913) at the rear of the auditorium; overhead lights gradually raised on the platform from where Bloxham directed the CBSO in an engaging account of Printemps (1887). Whatever its formal inelegance and stylistic derivativeness, this two-movement piece has an insouciance and extroversion which Debussy only occasionally re-captured – enhanced by the knowing sophistication of Caplet’s orchestration a quarter-century later. Graźinytė-Tyla returned for George Benjamin’s Ringed by the Flat Horizon (1980), its evocation of desert storms rendered with a graphic immediacy and sure sense of purpose to make one regret that an unfortunate accident onstage meant the performance had to be curtailed before the close. The orchestra reassembled after a break for La Mer (1905) – emotional contrasts stressed a little too readily in ‘Jeux de vagues’, but with the outer movements bracingly projected to round off this final concert in impressive fashion.

Even on the basis of these Symphony Hall concerts, this Debussy Festival did its composer proud by conveying the sheer variety of his output and also its relevance to Western music during the century since his death. Omissions were few – of which the most significant, his full-length opera Pelléas et Mélisande, will be redressed with a concert performance on the 23rd June. For now, Graźinytė-Tyla deserves full credit for having initiated this ambitious festival: its orchestral events leaving no doubt as to the rapport between her and the CBSO.

For more information on the CBSO Debussy Festival, you can visit the event’s website

One thought on “City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: Second Weekend

  1. Pingback: Arcana at the opera: Pelléas et Mélisande @ Symphony Hall | Arcana.fm

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