LPO/Rumon Gamba – Divertissement

La création du monde
Appalachian Spring – Suite [original scoring]
Aubade – choreographic poem for piano and 18 instruments

Ana-Maria Vera (piano)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Rumon Gamba

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 19 June, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Make no mistake, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has made good use of its first season in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with concerts of unfamiliar repertoire. This programme – largely of French music mainly written for the ballet – was welcome, even if La Création du monde (1923) left something to be desired.

Milhaud’s most influential work has remained so through its spontaneously combining jazz (specifically blues) idioms with a subtle formal process where each section is either anticipated or recalled by the next in an effectively modified rondo. Rumon Gamba’s forthright but often inflexible direction failed to make the piece cohere as it might, and there was a similar lack of ‘give’ in the rhythmically more animated passages – without which the music can seem inconsequential. Martin Robertson’s typically soulful sax and Rachel Gledhill’s adroit kit-percussion went some way towards redressing the balance.

Next up was the suite from Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), heard here in its original scoring for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano and string nonet. Cleaner and even more transparent than is the more familiar orchestral version, it (not inappropriately) brings out the music’s Stravinskian leanings, yet the chance to point up contrasts of mood and pace more keenly was not taken until almost the half-way mark – in what was initially a beautifully-played though often enervated account. Yet the sequence of variations on ‘Simple Gifts’ made for a telling apotheosis, and the idyllic postlude was unaffectedly rendered – its beatific evocation made more so by a total absence of sentimentality.

It was only in the second half, however, that this concert readily took off. Poulenc’s Aubade (1929) is the second of his series of keyboard concertos – though the piece started life as a jejune-sounding ballet on the legend of the huntress Diana and her life of chastity, while piano and chamber orchestra pursue an essentially concertante relationship for most of its length. This, coupled with the rhythmic intricacy of the piano writing, has probably deterred many soloists from taking on the work, but Ana-Maria Vera showed little sign of tentativeness in what was a confident and engaging rendition. Ranging from the Mozartian pastiche of the ‘Rondeau’ to the Stravinskian gravity of the ‘Conclusion’, Aubade touches on most of Poulenc’s strengths and weaknesses – though, judged purely in the abstract, it can rank among his most convincing instrumental works and fully deserves more frequent airings.

Equally characteristic, and also less heard than it ought to be, Ibert’s Divertissement (1931) – drawn from incidental music for Eugene Labiche’s play “Un chapeau de paille d’Italie” – makes a winning ‘end of concert’ item, especially when done with such character and effervescence as here. Gamba drove theouter sections hard, while pointing up the varying degrees of slapstick in ‘Cortège’ to delicious effect, and finding a repose as well as mystery in ‘Nocturne’. Both ‘Valse’ and ‘Parade’ were played incisively, exuding a knockabout humour evidently of its period yet also timeless in its appeal.

As a conclusion to this ‘end of season’ concert, the LPO could not have chosen better, and Gamba entered into its spirit with obvious enjoyment. How would he fare conducting Beethoven or Brahms? Let’s find out soon.

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