Picture:Stravinskys interpretation of Le Sacre du printemps - Jean Cocteau (c)Sesam, Paris 2001 (c)Artephot
Symphony No.93 in D Muldowney
Piano Concerto No.2 [London premiere] Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring
Angela Hewitt (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBCSO/Slatkin 14 November
Thursday, November 14, 2002 Barbican Hall, London
Reviewed by Timothy Ball
How refreshing to hear one of Haydns not-nicknamed symphonies! This one he wrote on his first visit to London in 1791. It is unfortunate that many of these fine works are neglected in favour of those with titles, but Leonard Slatkin and the BBCSO demonstrated that No.93 is every bit as fresh and inventive as its better-known companions in the series of twelve London Symphonies.
It was refreshing, too, to have what might be termed a traditional approach to the music, without any peculiar gimmicks paraded in the name of so-called authenticity, which usually means that the music is played as fast and insensitively as possible. The first movements Adagio introduction was firm and weighty, but there was never anything ponderous. The ensuing Allegro had an almost dance-like quality in its lilting rhythms. One noticed the felicitous writing for the woodwind with chuckling bassoons and phrases passed from one instrument to another. Haydns wit and good humour were well-pointed throughout.
The slow movement begins with a statement of a theme by a string quartet, which leads to a set of ingenious variations with subtle harmonic turns. All-important oboe solos were beautifully moulded and Slatkin ensured we heard Haydns inventive counter-melodies and inner parts clearly. The end of the movement, with exchanges between the flutes and violins answered by a distinctly rude note from the bassoon, raised an audible laugh. There was a vigorous, healthy tempo for the Minuet and Trio unusually marked Allegro, and thus rather faster than most of Haydns comparable movements and an almost martial air with trumpets and timpani to the fore in the trio. The awkward string figuration that launches the Finale was neatly turned and the colour and energy of Haydns invention was infectious. Mercurial slips into unexpected keys caused one to ponder anew Haydns fertile powers of invention. His sense of humour is never far from the surface witness a solo cellos quiet phrase being answered by the full orchestra. Slatkin and his players didnt miss a trick.
The BBC commissioned Dominic Muldowneys Second Piano Concerto for Angela Hewitt. It had its first performance a week earlier in Birmingham with the same forces as here. Muldowney employs a classical orchestra reduced strings and pairs of wind plus a percussionist and casts the 20-minute work in the conventional three movements.
The concerto gives the impression of being rather slight almost a divertissement and with plenty of opportunities for playing spot the composer. It was not hard to discern the influence of Stravinsky and Prokofiev in the outer movements, and French Impressionists in the second. The first, after insistent repetitions of one note, develops into a kind of tango in the orchestra, with florid piano writing in counterpoint. The soloist is treated almost throughout as first amongst equals rather than being permanently in the spotlight. There is some colourful scoring with melodic fragments trying to gel but never quite managing to do so. The abrupt conclusion seemed reminiscent of Walton in Facade mode. The oboes (hitherto silent) began the slow movement with a keening duet and long legato lines introducing the piano in a distinctly reflective mood. At one point there is almost a direct crib from Ravels Concerto for the left hand, but one admired the poise, refinement and elegance of Angela Hewitts playing and the sympathetic accompaniment. This was the most consequential of the three movements which started life as incidental music for a National Theatre production of Prousts Remembrance of Things Past, here developed and expanded, or fattened to use the composers own term. Jaunty jinks characterised the Finale, with the trumpets seemingly launching into the March from Prokofievs Love of Three Oranges. There is more virtuoso piano writing here than elsewhere. There was also the constant and tedious repetition of a three-note motive that bore more than a passing resemblance to that used by Stravinsky in The Glorification of the Chosen One from The Rite of Spring. To close, there is a giddy tune for everyone, and general good humour.
I suppose one could term this user-friendly music. There was nothing objectionable, nor was there anything particularly profound. It was given as good a performance as it is likely to receive, but one couldnt help feeling that Slatkin and Hewitts talents could have been put to better use.
We were informed in the programme note that time and familiarity have robbed The Rite of Spring of its original shock value. With respect to David Cairns, I beg to differ, especially in as compelling a performance as given here. Shock value was just what Slatkin and the orchestra gave. It was, in fact, a disturbing performance of this remarkable, epoch-making and breaking work. [Unless heard on Radio 3s live broadcast on which reverberation appeared to be added to swell the Barbican acoustic. Apart from nullifying the impact of the music, listening to a false acoustic was distracting and annoying Ed.]
It has become something of custom in the past couple of decades or so to dissect The Rite in such a way as to attempt to lessen its
originality as if such a thing were really possible. Its roots in
Rimsky-Korsakov and folk music have been analysed and traced, but this does nothing to diminish the sheer audacity of Stravinskys conception and his realisation of it. Time and again one was reminded of the startling newness in the orchestration, in the use of melody and harmony and, of course, in the liberation of rhythm. Music was, quite literally, never the same after The Rites notorious premiere.
The opening, notoriously high bassoon solo impeccably played seemed genuinely to give birth to what followed. In that startling
Introduction, the coming together of the various fragments of melody was riveting, with the balance enabling each strand to be heard and to register. The famous stamping chord that launches the first dance was appropriately aggressive, and what became apparent in this reading was building tension and an inexorable sense of moving forward. The wild Game of Capture gave way to the weary tread of the round-dances, starting tentatively and somehow poignantly, but the full orchestral re-statement of
the theme was terrifying the brass glissandos visceral in their
impact. There was at times an almost playful mood in the Games of Rival Tribes, and the arrival of the Sage, with baleful Wagner tubas led to that extraordinary passage of cross-rhythms which was properly frightening. The Dance of the Earth which concludes Part One really did dance with wild exultation.
The mysterious mood at the opening of the second part (The Sacrifice) suggested a timeless, mythological landscape. Here, the refined colour of Stravinskys orchestral imagination could be appreciated, with strange combinations of instruments evoking an eerie, otherworldly atmosphere. Ferocity returns with the Glorification of the Chosen One, its frequent changes of time-signature holding no fears for this conductor or orchestra. Indeed there was a sense of exhilaration, which carried over into the Evocation of the Ancestors with its explosive timpani and chorale-like passages. Simple, mechanistic ostinatos and alto flute set the mood for the ritual dance of the ancestors which, again, reached a powerful climax, and the tense, nervous energy of the final sacrificial dance never let up. As the work veered towards its conclusion, it was the unleashing of a sense of primeval force that was so compelling.
How extraordinary that a composer in the early 20th-century, using the most sophisticated techniques of composition and an unprecedented deployment of the orchestra could invoke this primitive, pagan rite. Has The Rite of Spring been robbed of its shock value? Not on the evidence of this superlative
performance by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.