Daphnis et Chloé – Suite No.2
Valses nobles et sentimentales
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Melvyn Tan & Ronald Brautigam (pianos)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: 10 February, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Quite a stretch from the “Miraculous Logic” of Sibelius to the present Parisian mélange but it’s all in a day’s work for the members of the London Philharmonic, currently celebrating a high-court victory over a former general manager and financial director. Where recently Osmo Vänskä was intent on eliciting incisive sonorities and abrupt contrasts at the expense of conventional Romantic expressivity (this is not necessarily a criticism – his readings of Sibelius’s symphonies 2 and 4 were superb), Yannick Nézet-Séguin prefers a more traditional kind of music-making. Famously mentored by Carlo Maria Giulini he goes for pure sonorities but blends them warmly. This concert was never going to be anything but relatively soft-core.
In his recent commercial recording of the Ravel items for EMI (issued November 2009), much rehearsal time would seem to have been expended on the natural shaping of string lines; the opening dawn chorus of the Daphnis Suite No.2 is subtly inflected with rubato, every thread flexible and glowing. That was not quite the case here. I missed the touches of olde worlde portamento that enliven the playing of the Rotterdam Philharmonic on that compact disc. Instead the LPO woodwinds reminded us that they are not quite world-class while the Royal Festival Hall acoustic proved especially ungrateful, deadening sounds to which the conductor kept determinedly allocating breathing space. If the performance came across as episodic rather than proceeding inexorably to an ecstatic pagan climax, it is worth recalling that Pierre Monteux’s ‘Danse générale’ was not all that viscerally exciting either. But what a strange piece to open proceedings! Valses nobles et sentimentales, another calling card, emerged similarly: would-be sumptuous and fresh-minted but somehow not quite there.
Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, not a million miles from Ravel’s G major, necessitated substantial platform disruption, reminding (as if we needed reminding) that this was a bizarrely constructed programme. Many assumed the interval had arrived. Despite the unlikely casting of a pair of sometime-fortepianists whose fingerwork did not always carry above a boisterous accompaniment, the work scored a palpable hit. Ronald Brautigam and Melvyn Tan projected its curious gamelan element to good effect while failing to point the jokes. The finale’s rapid-fire launch was smudgy.
Nézet-Séguin, who conducted all the purely orchestral pieces from memory, opened the second half with a scaled down Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, all beautifully articulated heat haze and rather too dreamy for Nijinsky-style autoeroticism. Though La mer was again not without longueurs it offered plentiful material for the conductor to demonstrate his control of colour and texture. It also gave the impression of having been more thoroughly prepared than the rest. Towards the end, the conductor chose not to restore the fanfares present in Debussy’s 1905 score from bar 237 but at least offered us something more rousing than neatness and finesse in the final climax.
While Nézet-Séguin’s podium manner is almost as demonstrative as Vänskä’s, he eschews the kind of boyish virtuoso brilliance that delights in unmotivated dynamic extremes or sudden bursts of speed. That may or may not be a good thing but this French evening proved perplexingly low-key and sectional for a conductor so conspicuously successful with Brahms and Bruckner.