Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite, Op.80
Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor, K466
La mer – three symphonic sketches
La valse – poème choréographique
Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Landau
Reviewed: 24 February, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Philharmonia Orchestra responded to Stéphane Denève’s direction so intuitively – with such sensitivity, tonal variety and virtuosity – so as to fully reveal the unique quality of these four works. The music that Gabriel Fauré wrote to precede the four acts of Maurice Maeterlinck’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” perfectly captured what Mrs Patrick Campbell (who commissioned Fauré’s score) described as the “poetic purity” of the play. ‘Prélude’, with its arching and undulating string phrases, was here beautifully shaped, without a hint of emotional excess, and boasted fluid and delicate timbres from woodwinds, especially Samuel Coles on flute and Christopher Cowie on oboe. In ‘Fileuse’, in which Cowie again shone, the violins were by turns delightfully silky and skittish, and pizzicatos from the lower strings adroitly exposed agitated undercurrents. Denève gave us a gossamer ‘Sicilienne’ with a winsomely infectious lilt, and in ‘La mort de Mélisande’ his complete identification with the tragedy was clear.
From its very opening, Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto is imbued with a distinctly operatic quality, and with colours redolent of the forthcoming “Don Giovanni”. In the orchestral introduction, the emphatic accents in the lower strings suggested that Denève would take full account of these dark and crucial elements. Bleak timbres were a consistent feature of the performance, and in the first movement the manner in which woodwinds and horns pierced through the surrounding textures heightened this mood. After Piotr Anderszewski’s direct and unassuming entry, it was apparent that pianist and conductor had a shared view of the work. Archness and wilful decoration were eschewed in favour of an interiority allied to dramatic cut and thrust, occasionally underlined with neatly judged agogic accents. This was pianism full of temperament, especially in Beethoven’s cadenza, and it was only at the close that some resolution was achieved. In the ‘Romanza’, Anderszewski’s directness signalled many moments of delicacy and some that were magical. The finale was attractively fleet of foot, notable for vivid interplay between string sections and for some rich contributions from winds (my, how the horns shone!). Anderszewski’s cadenza was at-one with the work’s sombre aura, bordering, indeed, on high anxiety. The closing bars brought happy release, flute, oboes and horns paraded a great surge of energy.
In La mer and La valse, Denève offered abundant evidence of his identification with, and affection for, French musical impressionism. La mer was given an account that vividly caught the volatile character of the elements. As it had done for the painter Turner, the sea captivated Debussy, and by paying great attention to detail, Denève caught the mirage-like quality of Debussy’s three sea-pictures entrancingly. Woodwinds, brass and harps were consistent features, especially near the opening of ‘Dawn to midday on the sea’. Amongst myriad other remarkable passages were cellos and horns near the start of ‘Play of the waves’, the fierce and visceral growling (timpani, double basses and horns) that opened ‘Dialogue of the wind and the sea’, Keith Bragg’s piccolo cutting through towards the close, and the breathtaking richness and security of the phalanx of brass in the abandoned final pages. Finally Denève conducted a vivid performance of Ravel’s La valse, paced to perfection. Despite, or perhaps because textures were always transparently clear, the hypnotically nebulous quality of Ravel’s vision of destruction was exhilaratingly realised.