Danse sacrée et danse profane
Die sieben Todsünden – A Ballet with Song to a text by Bertolt Brecht [sung in German with English surtitles]
Debussy, orch. Robin Holloway
En blanc et noir
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Bryn Lewis (harp)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano) & Synergy Vocals
London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 2 February, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The Seven Deadly Sins nestled uncomfortably at the centre of this concert, a primary-coloured cuckoo in a variegated nest of orchestral Debussy. It was not just the juxtaposition: Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “A Ballet with Song” missed its mark for other reasons too. When Michael Tilson Thomas chose to present the work as an orchestral showpiece rather than a gritty example of post-Weimar decadence (the ballet was composed in Paris after both Weill and Brecht had fled the newly-Nazified Germany) the die was cast. The ‘Prologue’ needs a good deal more dirt than the LSO’s polished wind players were able to provide, while Anne Sofie von Otter, great singer though she is, has too mellow an instrument for this music. Her limpid voice lacks the necessary showbiz muscle to carry it off, so her Anna was a nice girl abroad in a naughty world rather than the trampled-upon victim Brecht had in mind.
As for von Otter’s use of a microphone (!), with its fleeting pops and distortions, I am baffled. The uneven amplification that resulted from its being hand-held compromised the mezzo’s habitually clean vocal line, especially during the sixth movement, ‘Unzucht’ (Lust). The four male singers of Synergy Vocals (Anna’s ‘family’) fared little better. Tucked deep within the orchestra and hamstrung by an inconsistently equalised quartet of microphones, their reliance on electronic magnification deterred them from any but the most perfunctory of nods at characterisation. The entire performance was an alienating experience – and not in the Brechtian sense. Still, Tilson Thomas and von Otter recouped some goodwill with their palate-cleansing encore, Weill’s lazy charmer ‘Speak Low’ from One Touch of Venus, a product of his later, more lyrical Broadway years.
The Weill onslaught threatened to leave Debussy all at sea, but fortunately between Sins and La mer we had not only an interval but also Robin Holloway’s bracing orchestration (from 2002) of the two-piano triptych En blanc et noir. In its original form this is a very busy work, but the British composer has recast it with the élan of a master orchestrator. Admittedly the first movement did not wholly convince – Debussy’s twenty lightning fingers were not quite subsumed into the texture during the opening flourish, and there was a routine tour of section leaders later on – but by the time Holloway reached the extended central Lento the work’s origins were forgotten and a shining coloration had taken hold.
With the deadly sins as yet uncommitted, the concert had opened with a prelapsarian rendition of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane. This aromatic, highly-textured late work is like a bath of ass’s milk, spiced by the composer with the exotic tang of a solo harp (sensitively played by Bryn Lewis). To close, by contrast, the orchestra gave us a scintillating account of La mer. It is debatable whether or not Debussy should ‘scintillate’, but Tilson Thomas had no qualms. The opening movement was awash with tidal crescendos and diminuendos, the LSO sparkling with extrovert homogeneity. After an evocatively wild ‘Jeu de vagues’ (Play of the waves), the conductor kept the windswept finale under tight control until the moment arrived for the brass to let rip. It was an immersive experience – La mer in 3D.