Honegger’s King David – BBCSO/Slatkin (11 October)

Menuet antique
Pavane pour une infante défunte
La valse
Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor *
Le Roi David

The Nash Ensemble *

Nicole Tibbels (soprano)
Louise Callinan (mezzo-soprano)
Werner Güra (tenor)
François Le Roux (narrator)
Lucy Scott (Witch of Endor)
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 11 October, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A substantial programme, this, with the Nash Ensemble sandwiched between the Ravel orchestral pieces and Honegger’s rarely programmed ’symphonic psalm’.

The BBCSO was not on its most positive form, its response to Chief Conductor Leonard Slatkin being, for the most part, merely dutiful, which lent a certain heavy-handed quality to the first two Ravel works in particular. Menuet Antique was Ravel’s first published work, but, ironically, the last of his orchestrated piano pieces. This performance was rather lacking in the necessary light and lean qualities, which Ravel so often strove for in his orchestration. Indeed, the music failed to take wing, carefully though Slatkin sought to articulate rhythms. A sour-sounding oboe, which was an unfortunate feature throughout the concert, did not lend the requisite poignancy to that instrument’s lines, here and elsewhere.

The Pavane suffered a similar fate, and was much too loud for much of the time. Although there was some expressive string phrasing, the crucial horn solos were too hefty for Ravel’s delicate musical portrait of a “little princess”. La Valse fared much better, with the gradual sense of impending catastrophe inexorably conveyed. From the subterranean depths of the opening, with sure-footed double basses, later seconded by sinister gurgling from the bass clarinet, to the cataclysmic climax, this was a convincing reading. Perhaps the opening paragraphs were not as misty as they can be, but Slatkin’s clear-eyed approach was credible in its own terms, and he ensured that each climactic moment – with the waltz trying to assert itself – was progressively more desperate.

It was quite a relief to have the Fauré to follow, and the Nash Ensemble’s performance was scrupulous both technically and in conveying the wistful expression of Fauré’s inspiration. The interplay between strings and piano – with the former impeccable in intonation – was masterly, and pianist Ian Brown ensured that the arpeggios, which are a frequent feature of the piano part, did not become a mere figurative accompaniment. The outer movements benefited from not being at all rushed – indeed the tempi seemed consistently natural – whilst the playful quality of the Scherzo and the romantic expression of the slow movement were clearly characterised. Lawrence Power’s burnished tone ensured that we noted how often Fauré gives key thematic material to the viola. This is not to underestimate the significant contributions of either violinist Marianne Thorsen or cellist Paul Watkins. In fact, the whole ensemble was excellent, and one can fully appreciate why the Nash won the Chamber Ensemble Category in this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards.

Honegger’s Le Roi David could not have afforded greater contrast. Starting life in the theatre, Honegger’s re-working of his score for symphonic forces (the version given at this concert) falls into no less than 27 sections, linked by a spoken narration. This was delivered lucidly by the first-rate François Le Roux, who responded to the text as if he were singing it. Leonard Slatkin made no attempt to reconcile the diffuse nature of the score – rather, he played up the contrasts most effectively. Thus the fervent choruses and hushed prayers, not to mention the orchestral marches (which seem to have more than a hint of Prokofiev about them) all had their very different parts to play in Honegger’s multifaceted canvas.

The chorus was splendid, though the solo voices were less successful. Nicole Tibbels, substituting at short notice, was more effective in the declamatory passages than in the places where a steady, expressive line is called for. Her strong vibrato did not blend well with that of Louise Callinan who, like Werner Güra, tended to be covered by the accompaniment, though, to be fair, the thick scoring at times does no favours for the vocal soloists. And in spite of Lucy Scott’s histrionics, and the pointed menace of the playing, there was a sense of the pantomime about the scene with the Witch of Endor, which I am not sure was wholly intended by the composer.

Nevertheless, Slatkin led a confident performance of a score he evidently believes in, and the BBC Symphony Chorus’s forthright contribution was indicative of its current form in, this, its 75th anniversary year.

  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 13 October at 7.30

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