Pavane pour une infante défunte
Jeux – poème dansé
Symphony No.2 (Le double)
Jeu de cartes
London Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 18 December, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The music of Henri Dutilleux (born in 1916) is a recurring aspect of the London Symphony Orchestra’s current season and this concert featured his first fully characteristic and possibly most representative work, the Second Symphony. Completed in 1959 (after a typically lengthy gestation), on commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the piece reflects his ambivalent yet equally productive relationship to the music of the European avant-garde which had all but dismissed him: thus a group of solo instruments, placed centre-stage, whose concertante role looks back to Baroque practice as pointedly as its spatial function mirrors contemporary thinking; these made integral to a Classical lucidity of form allied to an inherently French conception of the Romantic symphony with its lineage in Franck and Roussel. Formally the work is easy to follow, while its expressive ambit is enriched by a translucency and subtlety of harmony inferring tonal complexity without this being the case.
All of which is a tough assignment in a performance, such as this account only partially conveyed. Valery Gergiev had the measure of the first movement’s constant pivoting between dynamism and stasis, animation and sensuousness, though positioning the double group at stage-right meant that the spatial interplay with the orchestra was compromised. The slow movement was finely played but Gergiev seemed unwilling to define its intensifying phases more readily, the central climax emerging rather than breaking through the accumulated texture in what is the symphony’s most passionate expression. Gergiev characterised the finale’s initial pages with a Messiaenic fervour and brought due rhythmic incisiveness to what follows, yet the apotheosis lacked any real sense of momentum, then the coda – despite alluring playing – was simply too slow and neutral to round off the work with the necessary inner intensity. The performance needed more fine-tuning to ‘make it happen’.
An ambitious programme saw something approaching the best and (relative) worst of the LSO/Gergiev partnership with the pieces on either side. Certainly there was little to fault in Debussy’s Jeux – given understatement is not the only requirement here. Gergiev placed as much emotional emphasis on this music of perpetual transition as it could take, the result was a compulsively absorbing account of one of the twentieth-century’s half-dozen masterpieces; exuding a sense of involvement that went much of the way to remove the charges of coldness or aridity still levelled at this piece.
One might have expected Gergiev to be more completely at home in Jeu de cartes, but this performance was one in which a tendency to overload dynamics and over-press tempos took the place of the music’s abundant if tendentious humour. As in other of the composer’s works from this period, a fair amount of automatic writing need not preclude a sense of cohesive evolution – as anyone who heard Oliver Knussen’s masterly account at this year’s Proms will no doubt concur. Not so here, as Gergiev coasted through the music with as much ‘playing to the gallery’ as possible.
Framing the concert were two contrasted works by Ravel. Gergiev seemed to take the meaning of Pavane pour une infante défunte in strictly funereal terms given the overall torpor of this account, and from which the greater expressive animation of the central section offered only minimal relief. If expression does yield to technique in Boléro, then its unremitting logic and strategic interplay of melody and accompaniment are their own, enduring fascination. This performance did not wholly avoid the pitfall of speeding up (however incrementally) as it got louder, but its precision and poise were undoubted – Gergiev clearly having set the parameters within which it evolved then letting the LSO do the rest. The outcome, if lacking the remorselessness the composer brought to his flawed yet fabulous recording, was true to the work’s essence and also guaranteed to bring the house down.