London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth: Half-Six Fix – Stravinsky & Debussy

London Symphony OrchestraFrançois-Xavier Roth (above)

Half-Six Fix

Stravinsky Le chant du rossignol (1917)

Debussy La Mer (1903-1905)

Barbican Hall, London; Wednesday 28 March 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

The London Symphony Orchestra’s new Half-Six Fix initiative went ‘live’ with this Stravinsky / Debussy double header; a concert full of colour and mutual appreciation for two of the 20th century giants.

A more relaxed approach was immediately evident on arrival at the Barbican for the early evening hour of music. Downloading the EnCue app gave audience members a stream of content at their disposal, with comprehensive notes on the two pieces as well as artwork and cues for the performances themselves.

Interestingly during the concert I did not witness anybody using their phone in this way – which in a sense was encouraging, for everyone was in thrall to the performers themselves. The other major disadvantage with reading concert notes on a mobile phone is the distraction of notifications from elsewhere. Surely one of the great advantages of live music is that it takes you to a special place away from everyday life! That said, the resources available do also give the option for reading between pieces, and were of a high quality to make them fully worthwhile.

Our compere for the evening was François-Xavier Roth and he was the ideal host, introducing the pieces with a nice line in respect and humour. The use of musical examples with the orchestra was helpful – flautist Gareth Davies showed off Stravinsky’s Le chant du Rossignol, while it was nice to see glockenspiel and cymbals promoted to the front line so that we could appreciate Debussy’s masterly use of the orchestra in La mer.

The performances were superb. Le chant du Rossignol had rhythmic precision and musical finesse, telling the story of the nightingale and the efforts of its Japanese imitators to emulate its song in vivid, widescreen technicolour. Stravinsky’s inspiration in this piece was revealed to be very close to Petrushka, and Roth conducted a performance that brought the melodies to the front but emphasised some wonderful textures conjured up in the middle foreground. There were visuals, and fleeting glimpses of solos, but it seemed the LSO had not fully decided whether to show the orchestra in full or images derived from the piece, settling for a halfway approach which was fleetingly helpful.

Watching the orchestra was definitely enough – their standard these days is as high as ever, and if anything was even better for La mer. Clearly this is one of Roth’s first loves, and from a seat near to the orchestra you could practically feel the spray as the orchestra dived in.

Tempo choices were on the whole assertive but never at the expense of detail and expression, and when the final swell came in the third movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the wind and the waves).

Roth is an ideal host for this sort of evening, which can be wholeheartedly recommended, a case of quality winning over quantity – and it is pitched at a level where everyone present, from the first time attendee to the hundredth, will learn something new and get a fresh perspective. A great initiative for opening the mind to classical music in a more relaxed setting.

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

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – Debussy Festival: First Weekend

Symphony Hall, Birmingham; Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 March 2018

Written by Richard Whitehouse

There are numerous commemorations this month of the centenary of Debussy’s death, but the Debussy Festival taking place in Birmingham over the weekends of 17/18 and 24/25 March is likely the most extensive mounted in the UK.

Together with chamber and song recitals, films and talks, there is a series of concerts by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as its related orchestras and ensembles, which between them offer an overview not only of Debussy’s major works but also those who influenced him and those who have been influenced by him in their turn.

Saturday evening focussed on Sensual Debussy, opening with the piece in which the composer effectively became himself. Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune (1894) began proceedings, its pervasive sensation of lazy eroticism palpably conveyed. This segued into Trois Chansons de Charles d’Orléans (1898/1908) – a rare instance of Debussy’s acappella writing, its lithe alternation of solo and ensemble voices enticingly conveyed by the Birmingham University Singers. Mirga Graźinytė-Tyla (above) then directed a perceptive account of La Damoiselle élue (1888), its Rossetti text inspiring a cantata whose luminous modality and ecstatic lyricism fairly define musical pre-Raphaelitism. Soprano Ilse Eerens was eloquent in the ‘title-role’ and mezzo Aga Mikolaj (below) searching in her narrative, with the CBSO Youth Chorus’s singing ethereal but never cloying.

Mikolaj returned for three of Szymanowski’s Love Songs of Hafiz (1914) and captured their capricious flights of fancy as made one wish the whole cycle of eight could have been given. This might have been preferable to the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1859) that rounded-off the concert – finely played and convincingly directed, save for a rather jarring accelerando toward the climax of the Prelude, but whose emotional intensity was rationalized by Debussy into something more oblique and understated. As had just been heard in the latter’s Nocturnes (1899), first of his orchestral triptychs and a marvel of shifting textures in Nuages, then ominous evocation in Fêtes. The diaphanous yearning of Sirènes was hardly less evident; less than perfect integration with its female voices the only real flaw.

Sunday afternoon brought Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in a programme devoted to Debussy’s Legacy. Boulez’s Dérive 1 (1984) set the scene with its wave-like eddying of pithy motifs, then the music of Tristan Murail (above) took centre-stage with pieces from across three decades of his career. Treize Couleurs du soleil couchant (1978) is a reminder of how radical yet understated (à la Debussy) his music must have sounded in a French scene dominated by Boulezian serialism, harmonic overtones a constant around which the ensemble inhales then exhales its glistening timbres. How Murail got there was duly underlined by Couleur de mer (1969): almost his first acknowledged work, its five sections pit serial constructions against a more intuitive take on harmony and texture in music whose eruptive central span is almost as startling as its cadential sense of closure. Between these, Feuilles à travers les cloches (1998) is an evocative and eventful miniature anticipating the stark post-impressionism of Murail’s more recent music. Fastidious playing from BCMG, and perceptive direction by Julien Leroy.

The CBSO returned that Sunday evening for Modern Debussy, another hour-long sequence opening with a further account of Prélude à L’après-midi d’un faune in the arrangement that Schoenberg’s pupil Benno Sachs made in 1921. With flute, oboe and antique cymbals left in place, and harmonium ingeniously filling-out the ensemble, this proved an appealing novelty and ideal complement to the Première Rapsodie (1910) in which Debussy transformed a test-piece into a minor masterpiece – CBSO principal clarinettist Oliver Janes as responsive to its melodic elegance as to its deft virtuosity.

Responsive in support, Graźinytė-Tyla then directed a bracing account of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1921) where some refined playing toned down the 1947 revision’s asperities. A pity Takemitsu’s exquisite Green had to be dropped (were the parts not received in time?), but Michael Seal presently took charge for a characterful reading of Jeux (1913) – confirming Debussy’s developing variation as no less crucial than Stravinsky’s mosaic-like construction to the evolution of music this past century.

Food for thought, indeed, over the course of this first weekend – not least for reminding one of just how central to modern Western music Debussy’s presence has been. Hopefully, too, the overall quality of interpretation will be maintained throughout next weekend’s concerts.

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

 

On record: Stephen Hough – Debussy: Piano Music (Hyperion)

Debussy Piano Music Stephen Hough (piano)

Debussy
Estampes (1903)
Images Set I (1905)
Images Set II (1907)
Children’s Corner (1906/8)
La plus que lente (1910)
L’isle joyeuse (1903/4)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This centenary-year collection from Stephen Hough takes in Debussy’s best-known suites for piano, simultaneously offering an ideal introduction to the composer’s music.

What’s the music like?

This disc is a great illustration of the strides Debussy made in piano music in the first decade of the 20th century. Starting with Estampes, Stephen Hough immediately shows the listener how the added note chords, elusive melodic figures and watery textures still create pictures of deep emotional substance. Every note counts with Debussy, and his music uses some particularly alluring chord progressions, creating pictures and moods unlike any composer of the day.

So too with both books of Images, the style further developed, while making more obvious references to the composers influential in Debussy’s development (the Hommage a Rameau for instance). The mood becomes more playful with Children’s Corner, much loved for its characterisations of infant toys. The Golliwogg’s Cake Walk is a big part of this, its winsome syncopations and catchy tune both reasons for its place as one of the composer’s best-loved pieces. It is a great example of a tricky piece made to sound simple.

Does it all work?

Very much so. Stephen Hough clearly loves these pieces; he knows just how he wants them to go, and in Children’s Corner he is not afraid to bring out the inner infant. Estampes and Images are richly coloured and commandingly played, the piano sound offering clean and precisely shaded pictures. Hough’s masterly command of the phrasing in La soirée dans Grenade is especially impressive, while Jardins sons la pluie is also brilliantly played.

The Images are lovely. Reflets d’ans l’eau melts under Hough’s soft touch, while Mouvements shows off the technical ability he has in spades, with flawless octave playing giving clarity above the whirl of notes beneath. By contrast Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is exquisitely restrained, Hough paying particular attention to the colour realised in his slow picture painting.

The addition of short pieces La plus que lente and L’isle joyeuse offer great space and colour, the icing on the cake of this recital.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If Debussy’s piano music is new to you, let this be the way in. If it is already familiar then these interpretations will bring it to life once more, exploring the composer’s love of the dance and also his ability to create sounds and textures placing the piano in a whole new context. Buy it and be transported away.

Wigmore Mondays: Apollon Musagète Quartet play Grieg, Puccini & Sibelius

Apollon Musagète Quartet [Paweł Zalejski, Bartosz Zachłod (violins), Piotr Szumieł (viola), Piotr Skweres (cello)]

Sibelius Andante Festivo (1922) (1:55 – 6:00 on the broadcast link below)
Puccini I Crisantemi (1890) (6:25 – 13:45)
Grieg String Quartet in G minor Op.27 (1877) (16:00 – 52:46)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 29 January 2018

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

Written by Ben Hogwood

This was a well thought out and brilliantly played concert from the Apollon Musagète Quartet, bringing together three composers not normally associated with the idiom of the string quartet, and making a very strong case for their efforts.

The Andante Festivo dates from a period when Sibelius was struggling, inspiration arriving at the Finnish composer’s house only fitfully. This piece was written on one such day, with the same luminous scoring that would characterise the Sixth Symphony. Here it was given an appropriate, ceremonial air – apt given that it was written for the 25th anniversary of the Säynätsalo sawmills. The full chords were deeply resonant here, hinting at a suitability realised by the composer’s later arrangement for string orchestra.

Puccini‘s I crisantemi is if anything more familiar in the composer’s arrangement for larger forces, but it was also very affecting here. The recurring harmonies have a strong, nostalgic tug at the heart strings, and again the Apollon Musagète were as one, skilfully putting deep feeling over sentimentality.

Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor is, in my opinion, a neglected masterpiece. That is a phrase you will of course read all too often in reviews, but in my defence I have no less a figure than the composer Franz Liszt to back me up!

“It is a long time since I have encountered a new composition, especially a string quartet, which has intrigued me as greatly as this distinctive and admirable work by Grieg.”

In this performance (from 16:00) on the broadcast link) the bold, solemn introduction quickly yielded to a fast movement that meant business and was already digging deep. Frequently the string writing is beefed up, and the impressive volume of this performance was balanced by a cleanliness of ensemble and attack. At 23:44, a brief pause between a big, sweeping statement and a very small response felt like the start of a new movement, so pronounced were the four players in their response.

From 28:56 the charming second movement Romanze made great appeal, with a lovely warm solo from cellist Piotr Skweres. The third movement Intermezzo (36:45) returned to the bold, assertive outlines of the first movement, resolutely sticking to a minor key – until, that is, its rustic second theme gave a jaunty alternative. This introduced a tension to the performance, as though Grieg himself was flitting between the two moods and unable to settle.

This battle of wills continued into the finale (from 43:59), the twisting lines of its brief introduction led by first violinist Paweł Zalejski until a nervy fast theme took hold. The quartet made much of Grieg’s daring harmonies, with some surprisingly bold dissonances, until finally the refuge of a major key was reached (from 51:46) Now the struggle – for performers as well as composer! – was more emphatically won, putting the seal on a really fine account of a piece that should be heard far more often.

As an encore the Apollon Musagète gave us a string quartet arrangement of Osvaldo Fresedo’s Vida mía (from 54:39), one of the Argentinian composer’s best-loved tangos.

Further listening

You can listen to recordings of the music from this concert on the Spotify playlist below:

Grieg’s String Quartet had a profound influence on Debussy, when he came to write his only work in the form sixteen years later. It is paired in a playlist here with Sibelius’ best known work in the form, his quartet known as Voces intimae: