LSO – François-Xavier Roth conducts Boulez, Debussy & Stravinsky, and the premiere of Ewan Campbell’s Frail Skies – Renaud Capuçon plays Bartók

Livre pour cordes
Violin Concerto No.2
Ewan Campbell
Frail Skies [Panufnik commission: world premiere]
Le Chant du rossignol
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Renaud Capuçon (violin)

London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Ateş Orga

Reviewed: 25 March, 2018
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Renaud CapuçonPhotograph: Simon Fowler / www.renaudcapucon.comIn planning this concert, the third and last of his Debussy and Beyond series with the LSO, François-Xavier Roth opted for a programme featuring music by those he considers Debussy’s “sons”, in this case a span of composers from Bartók to Ewan Campbell. During an over-long evening, with arguably one work too many, the two clear masters were Debussy himself and Boulez. The latter’s Livre pour cordes (the 1988/89 revision), veering, its architect maintained, between “intentionally austere bareness [and] the most proliferating exuberance” stood out overall for its structured roundness – its oscillations of bleak landscape, sensuous beauty, chattering pizzicatos, expansive legato weaving and dynamic swells making for a concentrated essay that should be far more established in the repertory. It’s a piece not so much about lightning impact as lingering aftertaste. Roth, favouring divided violins and double-basses to the left, secured refined playing from the LSO strings (at full strength), the clarity yet lushness of his conception paradoxically both masking and focussing the complexities of texture and thought processes on the page.

Neither Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto nor Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol caught the imagination in the same way. Both have their mastery and moments, from the arresting, harp-throbbing, opening of the former to the flute and trumpet solos and gravity basses of the latter. Both, though, also have their dips in creativity. Chant du rossignol, the poor relation of Stravinsky’s earlier defining trilogy of pre-First World War Ballets Russes productions, isn’t without fragmentation, a dependence on tricks and cliché to get out of awkward corners, and, towards the end, a loss of musical interest, a paucity of invention. I admired Roth’s precision management and the LSO’s solo and corporate contribution was duly attentive, responsive to every silence and sonority, yet the performance failed to engage fully: a half-lit drama, neither “fairy tale” (Hans Christian Andersen’s) nor symphonic poem.

Bartók originally wanted his 1937-38 Second Violin Concerto to be a set of variations, but Zoltán Székely, who commissioned it, insisted on a traditional three-movement format. Bartók complied but not without compromise … plus some orchestral asides playing to the gallery that stylistically I’ve never really warmed to. Renaud Capuçon has recently recorded it with Roth and the LSO (Erato). What he brought to this performance (playing from music) sounded uncomfortably like a studio-clean overview, producer-driven and efficiently delivered but without much personal fire or life-and-blood passion. His virtuosity was not to be questioned – this is a tough work and he was up for every moment. But to turn Bartók’s running passages, and the first-movement cadenza, into more than note-spinning, requires dimensions, a seeking and phrasing which he was reluctant to explore. The central Andante was more involving, if emotionally still under wraps; the Finale, a long crescendo, loosened up a touch. Roth, a supportive, listening accompanist, ensured the structure held together, and the brass and percussion sections excelled in ways we know they can.

Completed last year, Ewan Campbell’s Frail Skies is, according to Jo Kirkbride’s programme note, “a tribute to the sky in all its beauty and its volatility” but also, less discernibly (aurally anyway), “a commentary on the political and environmental uncertainties of the times we live in – where people are fickle and views seem to change as quickly as the winds”. The winds and storms of night and day, calms and stresses, voids and accumulations, fragments of song, people’s distant voices tossed between terrestrial latitudes and altitudes, loosely define this soundscape. But what its gesture defines, its intrusions or emptiness, is left open-ended, the listener encouraged to pursue (or not) narratives of their own fashioning and interpretation – resonances and rhythms, degrees of density and dynamic, creating a multitude of associations current as much as ancestral. Others – Berlioz to Mahler to Debussy, Copland to Birtwistle – have demonstrably used more economical means to evoke natural phenomena – a single note can speak volumes, opening up the sky metaphorically and mystically – but Campbell’s sonic imagination is keenly intuitive, and he sculpts well, tam-tams to east and west of the stage framing the orchestra to theatrically subterranean effect. A good showcase to open a Prom, I’d have thought.

Marking the death of Debussy a century ago, to the day, almost the hour, La mer was all that was to be expected of the LSO in the hands of a conductor as cultured, nuanced and experienced as Roth. In this tangy, very Gallic performance, with its inexorable sense of direction, climax and tidal flow, Roth proliferated all shades of waters – not the East Anglian darkness of Peter Grimes but the sunlight and mists, the grey/green eddies and white horses of la Manche. Occasional rogue waves would roll by, the flotsam and jetsam of the hours, transient visitors off-course from other currents and climes. The ‘Pagodes’-like allusion to men and manners South China Sea way in the first sketch; the oceanic, Turner-esque maelstrom of the third – Turner, “the first creator of mystery in the whole of art” Debussy believed. Roth conjured a shivering, lashing canvas, Poseidon’s fury unleashed.

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