BBCSO/Slatkin – 14 November

Picture:Stravinsky’s interpretation of Le Sacre du printemps – Jean Cocteau (c)Sesam, Paris 2001 (c)Artephot

Symphony No.93 in D
Piano Concerto No.2 [London premiere]
The Rite of Spring

Angela Hewitt (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 14 November, 2002
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

How refreshing to hear one of Haydn’s 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 movement’s ’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. Haydn’s 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 Haydn’s 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 Haydn’s 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 Haydn’s invention was infectious. Mercurial slips into unexpected keys caused one to ponder anew Haydn’s fertile powers of invention. His sense of humour is never far from the surface – witness a solo cello’s quiet phrase being answered by the full orchestra. Slatkin and his players didn’t miss a trick.

The BBC commissioned Dominic Muldowney’s 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 Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand, but one admired the poise, refinement and elegance of Angela Hewitt’s 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 Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”, here developed and expanded, or “fattened” to use the composer’s own term. Jaunty jinks characterised the ’Finale’, with the trumpets seemingly launching into the ’March’ from Prokofiev’s 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 couldn’t help feeling that Slatkin and Hewitt’s 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 3’s 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 itsoriginality – as if such a thing were really possible. Its roots inRimsky-Korsakov and folk music have been analysed and traced, but this does nothing to diminish the sheer audacity of Stravinsky’s 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 Rite’s 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 ofthe theme was terrifying – the brass glissandos visceral in theirimpact. 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 Stravinsky’s 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 superlativeperformance by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

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