Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Michael Hubbard on the CBSO concert of Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series musicOMH editor Michael Hubbard gives his verdict on the City of Birmingham Orchestra and their Prom of French music.

Prom 31: Inon Barnatan (piano), Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

ARCANA: Michael, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

There was always a guitar hanging in the lounge, as my father learnt a bit in the 1960s. He used to play things like Islands In The Sun, and then my mother would say “That’s enough!” and hang it up again. When I was in infant school, like anybody else, recorders became a fixture in my life. I had a descant, a tenor and a treble at various points. I never got round to the bass, only one person had that, maybe because her parents were richer.

In terms of the music I used to listen to, that was something else entirely. My mother was deaf, but she could somehow pick out some music more than others. She passed some of that on to me, and some of that was the opera side – especially Puccini – but there was music from King Sunny Adé through to Tina Turner, too. My father’s music taste could be discerned a little from what he used to play on guitar. When I was a little older I was able to go through his music and play some of it, from Johnny Cash to Abba. I know my mother’s teenage fixation was Elvis Presley. So although I had no formal music knowledge before I started learning an instrument, there was I suppose a lot of music around – but I had to look for it.

When were you first aware of classical music?

I was doing things in school, music class – and starting to pick up names like Purcell. When I started flute lessons at the age of 11, more of those composers became names to me, but up until then it was essentially things I heard on the radio. I had very little knowledge at that time.

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I could probably name about 300 and they’d change every time I tried to answer… so this will be the first three that come to mind.

Jean-Michel Jarre was a massive hero of my early teens. He is probably the main reason why the first musical instrument I was really interested in was the synth. I was self taught; when my grandmother died she said in her will, ‘he must have a keyboard’, and my mother stuck to that. She brought me the keyboard I wanted, a Yamaha PSS-680, with its mini keys. I went on to Korgs and Rolands after that, and eventually had a couple of years of piano lessons, which supplemented the flute tuition I’d been persevering with. Knowing my way round a synth – and covering Jarre tracks with it – opened the door to composition, and before long I’d written some rudimentary pieces. I could never have done that with just a flute, on my own – the synth allowed me to play everything. Like Jarre. His enormous Fairlights were of course a world away from my Yamaha, but here was a doorway through which I wished to step.

There was also a sense of drama in what Jarre was doing, it was like ‘I’m taking over Docklands for a concert’, or ‘I’m taking over a space shuttle launch site’. I loved that, that everything stopped because music was that important. The very idea he was putting out there was ‘I AM – LOOK’. The idea that drama could be a thing that is art – something you could express from yourself as opposed to someone scripting it for you, it could be you creating it, and you could take over the whole district of a city with your lights and your sound – was amazing to me. I had videos of the Docklands concert and Rendezvous Houston. I think they helped me become aware that hiding in the corner in the hope of never being seen was a life strategy that I’d already taken too far.

Another very big influence on my life was Erasure. Vince Clarke was composing on guitar but transferring his ideas across to synth. I think I’d pigeonholed synths and guitars in different worlds until I understood his process. You composed on one or the other, and that instrument of composition would then define your music and your artistic statement. Nonsense, of course. 1984 was for me a pivotal year as I discovered the UK Top 40 on Radio 1 and its visual highlights on Top Of The Pops. The charts were, it quickly became apparent, full of gays – as well as (half of) Erasure, there was Pet Shop Boys, Culture Club, and especially Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the list went on.

Through them and their conduit, the BBC, I became aware of a larger world. Andy Bell could appear in gold lamé hotpants to sing Sometimes on prime-time BBC1 and millions of our countrymen – not least my parents – would watch. I began to realise that we probably reacted differently to this performance. With my age still in single figures, the lyrical meaning of Frankie‘s Relax, I confess, passed me by – but Erasure’s songs, beginning with the chorus of Sometimes, had me analysing and reanalysing all sorts of assumptions. It marked at least the beginning of an awakening.

I’d already bought my first album on cassette tape, but my first CD album was for someone of my age not an obvious choice – Delirium by Capercaillie. En route to America for the first time, I was in a duty free shop with my father. He’d been concerned I wouldn’t have enough to occupy me on the plane, and took me into a shop and get me an album to listen to. I could choose from whatever was there. I can’t think what caused me to choose Capercaillie – I didn’t then know the band was named after a bird, or anything about their music. I did know they were Scottish, having scanned the sleeve notes, and somehow I’d lasted this long on the planet without owning any music by Scots, despite most of my family hailing from north of the border. Maybe it was a curiosity to hear if we’d have a shared connection.

Delirium merged synth sounds with their Gaelic folk music, and the latter was an otherworldly thing to my ears – I had no idea what those lyrics were about. I listened to the reels and jigs, and I wanted to listen to more of them. By extension from there started to listen more broadly to folk music. Capercaillie’s Delirium is not pure folk, but they are steeped in its traditions, and it opened that world up to me and gave me landmarks to mark the course of exploration.

The Proms does that too. You go along to see something that, as a piece of sheet music written hundreds of years ago, could be stultifying, but actually it’s alive because people are on stage and giving their own interpretations – like tonight’s Prom, with the trombonist in the orchestra in Boléro.

What did you think of the music in tonight’s Prom?

It was my first time ever hearing Boléro live, although like most people I expect I know it very well. It was my first time hearing anything by Debussy live, and had never heard anything by Lili Boulanger. I’ll work back, because I have Boléro in my mind at the moment.

I think it’s a pivotal piece of music. It’s not that exciting because once you’ve heard it you know where it goes, but that’s also true of most trance singles released on Positiva at the turn of the century. It’s a dance music track in embryonic minimalist form, building layers, reshaping loops, falling back. It’s also a pop music track because it’s instantly memorable. And it’s a classical music track because it uses an orchestra – it’s many different things. I want to know how it affects the broader world beyond classical, not if it was too fast or too slow, or which genre it neatly fits into. It’s probably not Ravel’s best in his own mind, but it’s certainly his big crossover hit from beyond the grave.

With Debussy I found myself not focusing on the musicians, but drifting. Not that it was bad, but I think that’s what it was about. I started thinking of other images the music was putting in my mind, in a way that Boléro didn’t. The first piece (the Prélude à L’apres-midi d’un faune) I thought was better at doing that than the Nocturnes. It was a nice warm-up, and I could see why it was first. Nobody stood out, it was a piece that brought everybody together. There was one thing happening organically. I couldn’t sing you a note of it now, but it engendered thoughts of other things.

With the Boulanger I found it very quiet, despite everything on stage – which felt like a choice that the performers had decided to restrain things. I thought that was odd.

What was your experience of the arena compared to elsewhere in the Royal Albert Hall?

For the Debussy I think I would rather have been sat down, but not for Boléro. It was odd to be standing up for classical, I would have expected to sit down and would rather do that I think.

Verdict: A qualified SUCCESS, even more so with seats!

Prom 44 – CBSO Choruses & Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot – Debussy, Ravel & Lili Boulanger

Prom 44 Justina Gringytė (mezzo-soprano), CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Ludovic Morlot (above)

Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
Lili Boulanger Psalm 130 ‘Du fond de l’abîme’ (1914-17)
Debussy Nocturnes (1897-99)
Ravel Boléro (1928)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 15 August 2018

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood Photo of CBSO (c) Upstream Photography

You can listen to this Prom on the BBC Proms website here

One of the BBC Proms’ most valuable undertakings this season is the music of Lili Boulanger (1893-1918). Her biggest choral work, a setting of Psalm 130 (Du fond de l’abîme) was the centrepiece of this enchanting concert from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Ludovic Morlot.

For once the Royal Albert Hall acoustic was ideally suited to the instrumentation of a piece, especially with the amount of detail lit up by this particular interpretation. Beginning with organ and lower strings that seemed to be positioned somewhere underground near the loading bay, the piece grew assuredly in stature and emotion, finding the nub of its text. The assembled throng of the CBSO Chorus sang as one, shaping Boulanger’s phrases beautifully while enjoying the harmonic twists and turns that give this piece – completed a year before its composer’s death – a distinctively modern turn.

Boulanger (above) was a friend of Debussy but had a tragically short-lived existence, dying from complications of illness at the age of 24. In that brief time she had already served notice as a composer of considerable invention, deep emotion and the ability to extend colour, harmony and melody in particular. All these things were on show in Psalm 130, the performance notable for its exquisite brush strokes.

The only problem was a difficulty in following the text itself from the arena. Although the right notes were undoubtedly there from the chorus, and mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė was full of tone in her solo passages, the words themselves were difficult to grasp above the texture. Some of the blame for this could go to the Royal Albert Hall acoustic itself – and it certainly wasn’t at the expense of a quite wonderful piece that should occupy a much firmer place in the repertoire.

For the rest of the programme Morlot and his charges gave us popular Debussy and Ravel, beginning in the heat haze of Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune and ending with the minimalist Boléro. These pieces were fascinating to contrast, from Marie-Christine Zupancic’s languorous flute solo that led off the Debussy – beautifully played – to the insistent, temple-knocking side drum of Adrian Spillett in the ubiquitous Boléro. Morlot paced both to perfection, giving us a chance in the Ravel to indulge in Matthew Knight’s trombone solo but also bringing out the Spanish rhythms and colour that make the piece a riot. He brought percussion section leader Spillett to the stage for a well-deserved curtain call at the end.

Before Boléro we were treated to the exquisite Nocturnes of Debussy – which would have been even more exquisite were it not for a barrage of coughing around the hall. Still, that did not completely harm a sensuously shaded account of Nuages (Clouds), the first Nocturne, whose softly oscillating chords left their understated mark, before the second and much quicker Fêtes (Festivals) ran lightly on its feet. The central procession episode of this pictorial movement was brilliantly paced by Morlot, with a hallucinogenic effect achieved through to muted trumpets, distant horns and wide open string textures.

While these two movements were special the concluding Sirènes (Sirens) was bewitching, fusing women’s voices and orchestra in an innovative combination that predates Holst’s The Planets by some 20 years. The CBSO Youth Choir were superb here, singing as one and hitting the high notes without fear – and without compromising the colour Debussy so clearly strives for. Morlot portrayed the vast, wide open scope of the sea – but also seemed to be looking beyond, casting his gaze far into space. This worked extremely well in the Royal Albert Hall, though perhaps quelling the coughers at the end was an even greater achievement!

This was an inspirational Prom, giving us familiar classics and the relatively unknown, boosting the profile of Lili Boulanger while reasserting the claims of Debussy and Ravel to be masters of their field. French classical music at its finest.

On record: Magdalena Kozená, Christian Gerhaher, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle – Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (LSO Live)

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Magdalena KozenáChristian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda FinkFranz-Josef Selig, Joshua BloomElias Madlër, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO0790 (three SACDs and one Blu-ray, 160’46”)
Producer James Mallinson Engineers Jonathan Stokes, James Hutchinson
Dates Live performances at Barbican Hall, London on January 9th and 10th, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra release their first opera collaboration on the LSO’s label. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work Rattle has conducted often (including London and Salzburg), and the present account confirms his identity with this most elusive of operas.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama is a high point of musical impressionism. This recording is derived from two performances at Barbican Hall, shorn of Peter Sellars’ ‘platform staging’ but its partial re-seating of the orchestra evident in numerous instances of balance. The result is to emphasize dramatic extremes, though without necessitating extremes of tempo in what is otherwise a finely integrated reading of real poise.

The cast is a strong one, and such reservations as there are centre on the title-roles. A model of clarity and lucidity, Christian Gerhaher is arguably too self-contained to convey fully the emotional eloquence of a figure whose actions can seem almost involuntary. No less secure technically, Magdalena Kožená is elegant if at times rather generalized in her assumption – rendering the notes with unerring accuracy yet not always conveying the inner radiance of one whose presence should be disconcerting through its very intangibility and equivocation.

Gerald Finley’s is among the finest recorded Golaud – conveying his moroseness and anxiety with palpable conviction though retaining a vital degree of empathy, while Franz-Josef Selig makes of Arkel a nobler and more substantial figure than is too often the case. Bernarda Fink brings warmth and pathos to the (too?) brief role of Geneviève, with Joshua Bloom shining in his cameos as the Doctor and Shepherd, but Elias Mädler is a little too mature in timbre to be ideal for Yniold – his exchanges with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted.

The London Symphony Chorus acquits itself admirably during its brief contribution, with the LSO playing as well as it has done for its new Music Director in terms of fastidiousness and subtlety; climactic peaks thereby feeling the more acute for their rarity. Compared to that of his Royal Opera staging, Rattle’s conducting is freer and less inhibited – touching on a wide expressive range without sacrificing attention to detail. Each of these five acts is shaped with scrupulous regard to the action at hand while being responsive to the emergent overall drama.

Does it all work?

Indeed, for all that Pelléas et Mélisande already has an extensive and impressive discography. Roger Desormière’s 1942 recording (Warner) remains the interpretative benchmark – while, among the more recent accounts, Claudio Abbado (DG), Bernard Haitink (Naïve) and Pierre Boulez’s DVD (DG) all have serious claims on the listener. Presentation over three SACDs and one Blu-ray, with the booklet containing a succinct introduction, synopsis and bilingual libretto, is unexceptionally fine – as also the sound, if with little sense of a tangible acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Yes, though the absence of a visual component on the Blu-ray might be thought something of a missed opportunity. Something LSO Live might like to reconsider before issuing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, the next Rattle/Sellars/LSO project which is due in the coming months.

You can read more about this release at the LSO Live website, or you can listen on Spotify below:

Arcana at the opera: Pelléas et Mélisande @ Symphony Hall

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Saturday 23rd June, 2018

Review by Richard Whitehouse

Pelléas – Jacques Imbrailo (baritone), Mélisande – Katja Stuber (soprano), Golaud – Roland Wood (bass-baritone), Arkel – Matthew Best (bass), Geneviève – Dame Felicity Palmer (mezzo-soprano), Doctor – Renaud Delaigue (bass), Yniold – Freddie Jemison (treble)

Members of CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraMirga Graźinytė-Tyla

Symphony Hall, London
Saturday 23 June 2018

It might not have been on the scale of the two weekends with which the City of Birmingham Symphony marked the centenary of Debussy’s death in March, though this evening’s concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande provided a fitting climax to this year’s commemorations.

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama a highpoint of musical impressionism. It was this blend of aesthetics that the present account brought out in full measure, so confirming Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla’s authority and the CBSO’s conviction in French repertoire as extends back almost a half-century to Louis Frémaux’s tenure. Obscure as the opera’s narrative can appear, there was nothing equivocal about tonight’s performance.

Vocally it was cast from strength and not least in the title-roles – Jacques Imbrailo’s eloquent and imploring assumption finely complemented by that from Katja Stuber, whose poise and limpidity betrayed no hint of coyness. Between them they amply conveyed a sense of people drawn together despite themselves and prevailing circumstances; the serenity characterizing their relationship gradually eroded as the net of fate closes around them. Golaud unwittingly plays the defining part in this, such as Roland Wood recognized with singing of great force but equally an emotional fragility which undermined every exchange with his wife and half-brother. Dramatic tension generated in the third and fourth acts is as tangible as in any opera of the period, and there was no doubting its presence as this account reached a fateful climax.

This is not to decry the other vocal contributions. In particular, Matthew Best was riveting as Arkel – ruler of a decaying kingdom (and dysfunctional dynasty) whose haunted demeanour was allied to a pathos and compassion that commanded the platform at his every appearance. Nor was there anything undersold about Felicity Palmer’s Geneviève – which, limited as this role may be, conjured the requisite foreboding in the face of inevitability that sets the course for all that follows. Renaud Delaigue was sympathetic if a little over-insistent as the Doctor, while Freddie Jemison was ideally cast as Yniold – his exchanges in Act Three with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted. It may enjoy the most incidental of roles, but the CBSO Chorus duly acquitted its brief (and here offstage) contribution with great subtlety.

Otherwise, and for all its radical take on French prosody, this is an opera where the orchestra plays a pivotal (and arguably determining) role, such as Graźinytė-Tyla recognized in the way she steered the emotional ebb and flow of the music with calm assurance. Momentum during the first two acts seemed a touch fitful, but that across the two which follow was unerringly gauged – so leaving the fifth act to unfold as a distanced while undeniably poignant epilogue which ultimately evaporates as if to underline the dream-like aura of much that has occurred.

This performance was enhanced by Jonathan Burton’s idiomatic surtitles and an absence of concert presentation or ‘scenic treatment’ as might have impeded the musical impact. A pity it does not seem to have been recorded, as this reading would have been worth hearing again.

For Arcana’s coverage of the two Debussy weekends in Symphony Hall, click here for the first weekend and here for the second

Wigmore Mondays: Javier Perianes plays Chopin, Debussy & Falla

Javier Perianes (piano, above)

Chopin Prelude in C Op.28/1 (1839) (1:44-2:25 on the broadcast link below)
Debussy Danseuses de Delphes (Préludes Book 1) (1909) (2:30-5:45)
Chopin Berceuse (1843-4) (5:50-10:38)
Debussy Clair de lune (Suite Bergamasque) (1890) (10:39-15:44)
Debussy Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Préludes, Book 1) (1910) (15:57-19:36)
Chopin Ballade No 4 (1842-3) (19:44-30:51)
Debussy La puerta del vino (Préludes Book 2) (1913) (32:47-36:15); La sérénade interrompue (Préludes Book 1) (1910) (36:18-39:02)
Falla Fantasia baetica (1919) 39:05-51:16

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 9 April 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

The Debussy centenary has brought out some imaginative programmes from performers, and the inspiration for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert from the Wigmore Hall lay in one of Javier Perianes‘ earlier recital discs. He played much of the music in an unbroken stream, giving a lovely continuity to the music making while linking the composers too.

Debussy loved Chopin, describing him as ‘the greatest of us all, for through the piano alone he discovered everything’. Comparing the first published preludes by the composers was intriguing, the urgency of the Chopin (1:44 on the broadcast link above) countered by the sultry, easily paced Danseuses de Delphes (2:30). Chopin’s Berceuse (5:50) and the famous Clair de Lune from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque (10:39) share the same key of D flat major, and here the join between the two was exquisitely close. In the Berceuse the boat, having initially started out on a millpond, ran into some pretty gusty weather, while the dance of the moonlight on the water in the Debussy was allowed to take its time to ripple.

The following Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (15:57) was deeply atmospheric, shot through with mystery – but then Perianes turned to a powerful and very fluid account of the Ballade no.4, (19:44) passionately played and emphatically signing off the concert’s first sequence.

The second sequence was more noticeably modern, its musical language shifting forwards. La puerta del vino (32:47) crackled with tension, an insistent Habanera rhythm becoming the lynchpin for a rich vein of improvisatory work up top, while the humour of La sérénade interrompue (36:18) was brilliantly caught, with its stop-start gait and Spanish flair.

The latter quality was fully in evidence for an assertive and exciting Fantasia baetica (39:05), Manuel de Falla‘s biggest work for solo piano. This was packed with big dance crossrhythms, powerful musical statements and substantial added note harmonies. There were some very striking moments such as the big, bell-like melody from 49:13, which seems to be an attempt on the part of the piano to imitate the guitar, and Perianes swept all before him to an all-encompassing finish.

For the encore Perianes turned our glances sideways to another of Debussy’s close if less likely influences, the composer Edvard Grieg, whose piano music is still massively underrated. The Notturno (52:21) chosen by today’s pianist was beautifully judged and vividly pictorial.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below: