Henry Wood’s Pictures at an Exhibition

Dardanus – Suite
Songs of the Auvergne [selection]
Lignes de fuite [UK premiere]
Mussorgsky, orch. Henry Wood
Pictures at an Exhibition

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
François-Xavier Roth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 September, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

François-Xavier Roth. Photograph: www.francoisxavierroth.frAn eclectic and attractive programme covering several centuries of music – from Frenchman Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) to Argentinean Martin Matalon (born 1958).

A military drum shared the platform with François-Xavier Roth, for him to literally beat time, a suite of dances from Rameau’s “Dardanus” (1739) displaying exuberance and beauty, played here with dignity and style and with no incongruity between the music and the use of ‘modern’ instruments, although neither the ‘guest’ theorbo or baroque guitar were to be heard (not the first balance problems of the evening). You can’t go wrong with a selection from “Songs of the Auvergne”, compiled over a period of thirty years by Joseph Canteloube (1879-1957), soulful and evocative folksongs brought to concert-hall life through vivid and imaginative orchestrations.Anna Caterina Antonacci. Photograph: Serge Derossi/NaiveAnna Caterina Antonacci was in glorious voice, seductive (as befits a fine Carmen) and also capturing an earthy vitality ideal for these songs, as well as poignancy in ‘Baïlèro’, the one arrangement impossible to escape in any ‘Auvergne’ selection, and rightly so. Mention should be made of Robert Plane for his clarinet solo linking ‘Deux bourrées’, the orchestra as a whole playing with sensitivity and brio.

As it also needed to do in Martin Matalon’s Lignes de fuite (2007), somewhat ‘electronically’ orchestrated and with in-built resonance, music that seemed initially too concerned with effects and colour, and not substance, yet over its 16-minute course a long-term strategy emerges that engrosses and leads to a thrilling accumulation, the orchestra (hard-hitting and iridescent) an unstoppable force, the closing bars turning into an unexpected direction, the ‘converging lines’ maybe split asunder.

Sir Henry Wood. Photograph: BBCFrançois-Xavier Roth conducted Matalon’s memorable piece with the utmost conviction, reciprocated by BBCNOW in the presence of the composer, and this commanding partnership then gave an over-the-top account of Henry Wood’s 1915 orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition (post-dating that by Mikhail Tushmalov, 1891, but preceding the now-ubiquitous one by Ravel – given Mussorgsky was content with the piano and doesn’t seem to have harboured thoughts of another medium, ‘Pictures’ has spawned a remarkable number of diverse arrangements).

Wood is more daring than Ravel, adding and subtracting, foreshortening and distending, ironically cutting all the ‘Promenades’ save the opening one and using a large orchestra in Technicolor terms (Hollywood then but a twinkle in the eye) and in styles from ‘Hammer Horror’ (again Wood ahead of his time, if sometimes risible) to exquisite impressionism. Delete the heralding trumpet solo that Ravel left us, and his later saxophone melody, but insert an off-stage euphonium, more bells than seems decent, and an organ to give that final flourish.

The performance was as vibrant as could be wished, but the trumpets (five by the end) were constantly too loud and detrimental to other instruments (strings submerged at times) but the exotic rhythm of the small hand-played drum in ‘The Old Caste’ was virtually inaudible. Great fun though, Wood’s extravagance given full vent (more than the instruments of his day would have been capable of) and at times more than even the Royal Albert Hall needs, but, most of all, a testimony to Sir Henry Wood, a remarkable and indefatigable musician.

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