Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite
Concerto in D for Piano (Left-hand)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
La mer – three symphonic sketches
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: 10 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
We’ve all marvelled at the fruits of restoration: the grubby Caravaggio cleaned up to reveal the zinging colours beneath; the cathedral façade scrubbed of centuries of accumulated grime. The early-music world has been at it for years, studying historical performance practice and discarding their nineteenth- and twentieth-century instruments for ‘authentic’ models. What we’ve heard rather less of is the sound that the audiences of one hundred years ago might have encountered, as the orchestra expanded and magnified its brilliance and volume. The works of Debussy, Fauré, Ravel and their contemporaries revelled in the colouristic possibilities of an ever-expanding palette of harmony and instrumental colour, but was it really different to the twenty-first century equivalent?
Sir Simon Rattle and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were on a mission to find out; to scrape back the patina and polish of the last century and uncover the ur-texture of the most lushly coloured music we know. They’d taken their programme of French orchestral music on a short tour around Europe, presumably getting to grips with repertoire outside the OAE’s comfort zone. The result? A little softness in the strings; a little more warmth in the brass; a whole lot of wobble from the oboe.
The older instruments told most in Fauré’s four-movement suite Pelléas et Mélisande, drawn from his incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play. The performance was marked by great restraint, rarely lifting above mezzo forte, but all the more refreshing and pure for it. Instrumental solos rose from the ensemble, yet were still anchored to it, particularly Lisa Beznosiuk’s slender-toned flute.
The same clarity was brought to bear on the opening of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the left hand: no grumbling basses here; instead, clear and shifting patterns at the very bottom of the orchestra’s range laying the foundations for the crescendo to come. The force of the OAE’s climax made the contrast with Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s period-piece Érard piano all the more striking. Without the heft at the bass end of a modern instrument, Aimard’s opening declamation only hit its stride in the piano’s middle range. It might be a less even instrument than we’re used to, but Aimard’s characteristically smooth delivery over-rode the challenges. Maybe, though, it was a little too smooth, valuing delicacy over danger in a work that teeters on the edge of darkness. Aimard chose Debussy’s ‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’, from the first book of Préludes, as an encore, but it only further demonstrated the lumpy tone of his antique instrument.
The experiment told us less, though, about Debussy’s orchestral works. Faune was noticeably slimmed and, for whatever reason, the oboe stamped across every texture with which it was involved. Rattle was at great pains to ease into every transition, but as it continued, the life drained from the performance. La mer impressed at certain episodes, but failed to connect as a narrative. The orchestra – with several performances of the work already – approached the first section tentatively. Aside from some warm-toned trumpets, the performance sounded little different from Rattle’s Berlin recordings of these works. As an isolated moment, the end of the third and final panel of La mer was exquisitely exciting. Rattle felt we all had to “calm down” and gave Erik Satie’s first Gymnopédie in Debussy orchestration as an encore.