Although the latest BBC Proms term is underway, the LSO still had its current season to complete with a concert that was also part of the City of London Festival, The Lord Mayor (Alderman David Wootton) in attendance. While the Royal Albert Hall was playing host to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the Barbican Centre had its own ‘French Connection’, not least with two song-cycles, one written for Renée Fleming, whose appearance guaranteed a capacity audience and a queue for returns.
For some the evening started with chamber music, a later commencement than usual for the regular Guildhall Artists series, and a really short programme even for a freebie, Ravel’s 25-minute Piano Trio from 1914. One of Haydn’s many delightful works in this genre would have been a welcome opener. The performance by the Rhodes Piano Trio had its weak spots, not least a thin-toned violinist with intonation problems and a reticent cellist who was inaudible in tutti
fortissimos, which may be a quirk of the Barbican Hall’s acoustic. Robert Thompson, however, made something of everything; he was poetic and also sensitive to his colleagues and invested all that he played with meaning. Although the musicians worked well together, interpretatively there were miscalculations. The first movement was alternately too cool and over-febrile, Ravel’s Modéré
marking rather ignored, so too a sense of continuity. The second (‘Pantoum’, a form of verse) was too snappy, its delectable trio lacking composure. However, the slow movement, signalled by the pianist’s left-hand tolling figuration, brought some deeply poignant playing, and the finale really ignited, the musicians finding triumph in the closing bars without aggrandising them.
We’ve been ‘at sea’ and mingled during the Shrovetide Fair quite a few times before with Valery Gergiev. In Debussy’s symphony-manqué
the LSO’s playing was very familiar, if not flawless, beginning expectantly but with some clunky gear-changes (as there were in the harried ‘Play of the Waves’ second movement), textures not always as clarified as ideal. In a performance edgy-sounding and over-bright, with really
quiet playing at a premium, Gergiev conjured choppy Baltic seas, something best suited to the stormy finale. But there was a power and beauty too, rolled out in glorious Technicolor, detail vividly turned, Gergiev convincing that La mer’s three movements really should be played without any pause between them. Most memorable though was the fruity vibrato from trumpeter Philip Cobb, a mix of Soviet-Russian brass-playing and Herb Alpert; not unattractive.
In 2007 at this address with this august ensemble Gergiev conducted Petrushka in its 1911 version; in 2010 he opted for the 1947 revision. Here he returned to the larger orchestra of the earthier original. This was a thrills and spills performance with much that was exciting and theatrically explicit. Certainly the opening pulsated with life, precision slightly sacrificed for rapacious vigour. Gergiev has rarely been so animated on the podium (both feet of the ground a few times), really enjoying music that has been a part of his repertoire for years, the LSO playing with flair (characterful solos from piano, flute, trumpet and bassoon). The more-interior middle tableaux lost none of the outer ones’ flamboyance, and the whole, if not particularly en pointe
(Gergiev himself aside), reminded that the finest ballet music transcends its choreographic origins to make great concert-hall experiences.
Renée Fleming’s second appearance of the evening was Shéhérazade. If vocal beauty perfectly premeditated were enough then this was just fine. But it isn’t. Fleming does Ravel’s cycle her way, with debilitating slowness and no room for spontaneity, which restricts, respectively, Eastern promise, enchantment (Adam Walker's flute solos aside) and – in the greatest of the three songs – nothingness: too static and blank in the wrong way with little to transport and move. The LSO and Gergiev accompanied dutifully.
Ah, but earlier, Le temps l’horloge (Time and the Clock) had been wonderful. Composed for Renée Fleming, Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) really knew his singer. Fleming has been true to this tailor-made work, giving the world premiere in 2007 in Matsumoto City (Seiji Ozawa conducting) and then the American first performance in Boston (James Levine at the helm). In 2009 Dutilleux added verse by Baudelaire (to that of Jean Tardieu, the title poem, and Robert Desnos) and also an ‘Interlude’ for cellos. This new version was also conducted by Ozawa, in Paris.
Scored for a large orchestra (including accordion and harpsichord), from the off Dutilleux’s characteristic bewitching web of timbres (economic, transparent and far-reaching) is beguilingly apparent, add to which a deepness of expression and emotion. The allure of the music, ideally fashioned for Fleming’s radiant vocal resources, and the painstaking craftsmanship of Dutilleux’s orchestral mastery proved absorbing, whether in the psychodrama of ‘Le Masque’ (Tardieu) or the quirky ambiguity of ‘Enivrez-vous’, the intoxicating finale to a lucky 13 minutes of captivating invention, Fleming, Gergiev and the LSO as one.