Royal Concertgebouw Sunday Matinees – 14th October

Alborada del gracioso
Piano Concerto in G
The Firebird (1919 Suite)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Chailly

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 14 October, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

A Sunday afternoon spent with an orchestra that epitomises refinement and translucency, qualities ideal for this repertoire. In Alborada, Chailly underlined the spirit of Spanish dance, in the pizzicato, guitar-like opening – the tempo nudged back a tad to give lilt – and in the slower (here flowing) song-like middle where a bassoon reveals the jester’s sad expression; an impersonation superbly taken by Gustavo Nunez. The woodwind as a team found pathos in the encore – delayed by Chailly for a couple of curtain-calls too many –, Ravel’s orchestration of the ’Sarabande’ from Debussy’s Pour le piano; the trumpet solo seemed overloud.

Chailly and his RCO have previously brought to London, and recorded, the 1945 Firebird Suite, the longest and lightest-scored of the composer’s three extractions. Publicity for this concert suggested the one from 1911, using the same outsize orchestra as the original ballet. That closes with ’Infernal Dance’, which here, as 1919’s mid-point, gave too much too soon, with nothing left for cumulative frisson. Nor did the carillon-like finale burst with joy, being too clipped. If Chailly’s indulgence of slower sections emphasised longeurs, there was much to relish in clarity of detail, rhythmic nimbleness, swift-reflex interplay and a heightened sense of magical atmosphere.

For the third time this year Thibaudet brought the Ravel G major to London. Such monopoly is wondered at; well, perhaps not when an ovation rewards his delivering scalic passages at top speed and making dully repetitive the soloist’s slow movement monologue. Thibaudet’s ’dry’ manner is not inappropriate for this work, but, in my experience, he plays everything like this! Over-emphasis within phrases, colour-restricted tone, a brittle touch … the slow movement was rescued by winds and strings revealing Ravel’s childlike simplicity with understated emotion. Despite a hectic opening – the solo trumpet given no favours – Chailly found the first movement’s nightclub atmosphere and eerie stillness well enough, although his appropriately tart accompaniment became garish in the finale, which made reclusive harp and double bass syncopation the more surprising. Thibaudet’s mawkish way with the first movement’s overlapping trills may have been offset by discretion elsewhere, but, for the want of more personality and interpretative variety, his role was that of obbligato.

This concert’s conspicuous success was Agon, Stravinsky’s proto-serial, Greek-titled ballet (’Contest’). Written in the ’fifties, Stravinsky’s diversity of style embraces musical biography – including the Russian expression of The Rite of Spring and, as originally conceived in 1920, Symphonies of wind instruments – to the ’black and white’ of the more specifically Greek ballet, Apollo, its string orchestra allusions now decorated by harp, mandolin and piano. Agon is one of Stravinsky’s most fascinatingly diverse scores, whether in the indivisibility of ’ancient and modern’ forms (equating to timelessness), economy of gesture (as rigorous as Webern’s), or phrasal angularity (akin to Schoenberg’s) softened by refrains of melting beauty; the orchestration consistently quixotic. The music acts out a drama – especially in this vividly characterised, fastidiously prepared performance – driven through by sheer force of creative personality; Chailly’s vivid rendition revealed how Stravinsky formalises his imagination and stylistic freedom. Whether influential or not, Agon’s processes suggest a direct parallel with Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s sense of theatre – notational intensity revealing inner consciousness enacted as a ritual.

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