London Symphony Orchestra/Tortelier Susan Graham [Mother Goose … Shéhérazade … Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune … La mer]

Ravel
Ma mère l’oye
Shéhérazade
Debussy
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Susan Graham (soprano)

London Symphony Orchestra
Yan Pascal Tortelier


Reviewed by: Francesco Burns

Reviewed: 11 June, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Yan Pascal Tortelier. Photograph: Christian SteinerYan Pascal Tortelier here replaced Bernard Haitink (the repeat of this concert, on the 14th, now cancelled). Before launching into Ravel’s Mother Goose (given complete), Tortelier introduced his son, Maxim, also a conductor and currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music. Tortelier fils played the role of narrator, reading out, in English, vignettes written by the composer into the score and which form a narrative. Although the music is explicit enough, the words certainly illuminated moments in each scene. At times the amplified voice got in the way of quieter passages, but diction was perfect and the sense of humour charming. Tortelier père’s masterly balance of textures ensured that the music was not trivialised. ‘Pavane’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ were innocently simple and never sentimental, the latter characterised by some fine clarinet playing, and ‘Empress of the Pagodas’ was light and refreshingly pointillist.

Having recorded “Shéhérazade” with Tortelier, Susan Graham was no less impressive in this concert performance. She was beautifully restrained and controlled in her opening cries of “Asie!”, an unwaveringly sustained pianissimo. Her sense of longing was convincing throughout and she phrased beautifully, shaping the prose-like text in long lines, as if each of her desires was a fleeting contemplation of the enchanting mysteries of Asia. Graham rode the crest of the rich orchestral tapestry with ease, Tortelier not submerging her in the thicker passages, his canvas nonetheless a grand panorama. Most impressive was the stark contrast of the almighty crescendo after Graham’s cry of “I’d like to see men dying of love or else of hate” followed by a section of peaceful undulation. In the following setting, ‘La flûte enchantée’, there was some elegant flute-playing from Adam Walker, around which Graham allowed each phrase to evaporate so naturally, ending poignantly. Finally, ‘L’indifferent’, was wittily sung, the sexual ambiguity of the final line, “in your lethargic effeminate gait”, afforded just the right amount of emphasis.

To begin the concert’s second half, Tortelier could have allowed the opening of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune to breathe itself into life a little more, but it became clear that he had struck a convincing balance between colour and form. His sensitive mixing of textures ensured radiant colours and he didn’t get bogged down in the more sensuous passages. Again there was some wonderful playing from Walker, supported with a generous amount of warmth from the horns, and some tender interjections from leader Gordan Nikolitch.

La mer closed the concert, again starting off relatively briskly – if only the sea could have awoken from more of a slumber – but throughout this opening movement Tortelier struck just the right balance between strict tempos and expression. The arrival of midday was truly joyous, terrifying in its magisterial power; then, ‘Jeux de vagues’ was light and refreshing, onomatopoeic water-droplets and ocean-spray clearly articulated. The finale, ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’, was appropriately tumultuous. Conducting without a baton, Tortelier’s beat was firm while seeming to draw waves through the air, mixing orchestral textures transparently, and artfully controlling the whole to close a considered and sensitively crafted performance.

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