La mer Ravel
Piano Concerto in G Sibelius
Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Ana-Maria Vera (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Friday, February 04, 2005 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Edward Clark
It is always good to hear Debussy and Sibelius, two composers of seminal influence in 20th-century music, side by side in a concert but whereas we heard Debussy at the peak of his achievement, Sibelius was represented by his comparatively early First Symphony. This work, which launched Sibeliuss symphonic odyssey for self-knowledge is, in fact, rarely heard these days and offers much to an audience with its Slavic romantic inclination. In between, came Ravels pugnacious G major Piano Concerto, which allows the soloist plenty of opportunity for jazzy virtuosity and, in the middle movement, Gallic refinement.
Yuasa achieved a wonderfully still opening to La mer and displayed a keen ear for the constantly changing timbres in this miraculous work. The middle movement worked up a fine momentum before subsiding to its quiet close, and in the final one (with the Ansermet-reinstated, ad lib fanfares included) Yuasa again brought out elemental contrasts, one moment the heartbeat almost stilled, the next turbulent and forceful and leading to a climax of considerable power. However, in the final analysis, there seemed to be too many sea nymphs playing near the watery surface at the expense of green-eyed monsters lurking in the greater depths.
Sibelius wrote his own seascape some years after La mer (The Oceanides, now to be heard in three glorious versions) but fifteen years earlier, in 1899, he embarked on his first abstract symphony after considerable goading from the Finnish critics impatient with his label of being a provincial nationalist. Also on the composers mind would have been the fact that he had been pipped to the post in writing the first such Finnish symphony by a much younger fellow countryman, Ernst Mieckl. No doubt afraid of loosing his position as the pre-eminent Finnish composer Sibelius set about writing a big, romantically-inclined symphony devoid of any nationalist programme that would establish him once and for all as the standard bearer of Finland in the wider musical world. It was a great success at its premiere both with the critics and the audience but Sibelius added one masterstroke in his revision of a year later, no less than the opening clarinet melody, which launches this volatile, epic work.
Yuasa caught the mood throughout with a commitment to the latent strength in the music. This was a full-blooded, romantic interpretation with no holes barred. Perhaps the second Andante movement was too soft-centred with its very slow tempo, but the scherzo was played for all its worth and the untold tale that lies at the heart of the finale was vividly captured and led to a coda of considerable grandiloquence.
In between came the Ravel, much influenced by Stravinsky and jazz. It could well be labelled the snap, crackle and pop concerto with its sparkling, effervescent opening, brilliantly caught by the soloist, Ana-Maria Vera. She also essayed the peaceful mood of the middle movement before playing with the run-away finale with considerable bravura. Yuasa and his players accompanied with panache and spirit, only the first-movement horn solo letting the side down with a slip that disturbed the sonority of the moment.