Philharmonia/Wolff + MOT

Treize couleurs du soleil couchant
Winter Fragments [London premiere]

Members of the Philharmonia Orchestra
Pascal Rophé

Tristan und Isolde – Prelude and Liebestod
Serenade for tenor, horn and strings
Romeo and Juliet, Op.64 [excerpts]

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Laurence Davies (horn)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Hugh Wolff


Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 18 May, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

With Julian Anderson (Artistic Director of “Music of Today”) indisposed, his place as presenter was admirably taken by Mark van de Wiel, principal clarinet of the Philharmonia Orchestra and a member of the ensemble playing in the early-evening concert. In a lively discussion, Tristan Murail (born 1947), a pupil of Olivier Messiaen, spoke about “what is inside sound” and his use of electronics, microtones and quartertones.

Two of his works were played, composed 22 years apart. Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (Thirteen Colours of the Setting Sun, from 1978, for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano) is a study in sound, one getting louder and brighter “towards a blaze of light”, before descending to its beginning.

Winter Fragments (from 2000 and written for the same instruments as ‘Thirteen Colours’ together with a MIDI keyboard, played by Clive Williamson, and a computer, provided by Sound Intermedia) is an exquisite piece of nature tone-painting, the soundworld extraordinary in its conjuring an eerie, ageless landscape as if the music is refracted through an ice cube. The composer proposes extremes of sound, a sense of calm then a tempestuous shriek. It produces a most unsettling effect and no wonder Murail is drawn to the music of Sibelius.

Like the great Finn the impression given by Murail is of a peopled place, a landscape which chooses to ignore their presence; natural beauty, sounds, and sensations often hostile, or at the very least indifferent to the human experience, are conjured through the computer-enhanced sound and which belies the economy of means the composer chooses in his instrumentation. This places an enormous responsibility on the individual musicians to be precise in their technique and projection; on this occasion, helped by the lucid direction of Pascal Rophé, the performance was a triumph.

After the always-welcome “Music of Today” concert, there was an opportunity to hear Hugh Wolff (a conductor with an international reputation but few appearances in London) lead mainstream repertoire.

The Wagner entered on the quietest of sounds, a real hush of expectation was created and, for once, the silences had real import. But it became evident that there were two concurrent performances taking place, the orchestra following a full beat behind. This caused a certain frisson of excitement as to what was coming next; but the Philharmonia made a wonderful sound throughout, rich, secure and emotional impact.

After super-charged Wagner, the chaste Britten Serenade came as a complete and welcome contrast. Mark Padmore’s light, bright tenor complimented Laurence Davies’s consummate artistry on the horn. Britten’s score remains one of his finest, relatively early though it may be. The melodic content is of the top flight and the originality of the word-setting now show up the paucity of many of his later attempts to recapture the effortless nature of his inspiration from this period.

Prokofiev is the greatest cosmopolitan composer of the 20th-century, no doubt because by his incessant travels in his middle years outside of his native Russia. The credentials of his orchestral sound are of less importance than the execution of the notes. Whereas in other, probably greater, contemporaneous Russians and Europeans, the music often benefits from a home-grown sonority, Prokofiev travels well in setting virtuoso challenges – nowhere more so than in what is surely his masterpiece, the ballet Romeo and Juliet heard on this occasion.

Hugh Wolff chose a curious set of numbers, out of sequence to the stage action, and also to the numbered suites stipulated by the composer. However, given the inspiration of the music, orchestral fireworks of the highest order were provided. The drama and pathos of the score was well conveyed with vivid and tender playing.

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