Marc-André Dalbavie

Composer Portrait – Marc-André Dalbavie

Axiom, for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet and piano [UK premiere]
Trio, for violin, horn and piano [UK premiere]

Marc-André Dalbavie in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama:
Florence Cooke (violin), Angela Barnes (horn), Sholto Kynoch (piano), Cristina Strike (clarinet), Neil Strachen (bassoon) & Owain Harries (trumpet)

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 43

Piano Concerto [BBC co-commission with The Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra: World premiere]
Symphony No.11 in G minor, Op.103 (The Year 1905)

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste


Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: 16 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

There is almost certainly more music around than we actually need, as Alexander Goehr has observed. Even if you restrict yourself to that segment of the continuum of music referred to as ‘classical’ (which I don’t), the most assiduous music-lover would still be hard-pressed to keep up with the unending stream of new work being produced from all points of the geographical and stylistic compass. These days it is quite possible to be well-versed on the music of a particular composer without having heard a single note of it. The best that can be hoped for, it seems, is to keep a running tab on the output of the major players and a watchful eye on younger home-grown composers and a few far-flung names of whom great things are expected.

Thus it is perfectly possible for French composer, Marc-André Dalbavie, to have risen to the kind of status whereby his Piano Concerto is the result of a joint commission from the BBC and two notable American orchestras without this dedicated follower of contemporary music having had any exposure to his music, other than a half-caught broadcast of his orchestral work Color given during the 2002 Proms season.

Although the programme note for the concerto and the pre-concert “Composer Portrait” were remarkably silent on the subject, the new concerto is the latest in a series of works (the two given at the ‘Portrait’ are others) written under the influence of William Faulkner’s novel “The Sound and the Fury”. An unperformed piano sonata (the composer’s first sustained essay for his own instrument) is projected into a number of different instrumental settings. The Faulkner influence no doubt was its radical approach to storytelling in which the same subject matter is related by several different characters (a compulsive liar, an idiot savant, etc.) with varying degrees of reliability. Thus the material of the sonata is restated in new contexts which drastically alter our perception of it.

In the concerto, the Lisztian opening gestures – a series of downward-fanning scales hammered out by the pianist in quadruple octaves – had already done duty as the opening of Axiom for an instrumental combination reflecting Debussy’s plans for a sequence of sonatas that he did not live to write. In Dalbavie’s tribute to the artistry of Emanuel Ax, the piano’s rhetoric – delivered with great authority by Sholto Kynoch, even if his efforts were dissipated in the vastness of the Albert Hall – was drawn into a playful engagement with the wind instruments in a dialogue of textural exquisiteness reminiscent of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. In the concerto, however, these same gestures function as a call to arms to an orchestra initially reluctant to engage. When the two do eventually mesh, the movement takes flight in a wonderfully light and aerial dance.

Nineteenth-century Romantic pianism was again suggested by the opening of the second movement, this time slow upward-rippling arpeggios with a right-hand melody floating above. ‘Portrait’-goers instantly recognised this as the music that had opened the Trio (given a remarkably assured performance) and the remainder of the movement broadly followed the same trajectory as said Trio, with a central plateau of static, entranced lyricism which seemed to explore some ancient forgotten modality, embedded within passages of rapid, swirling figuration. The last movement set up a brilliant interplay of soloist and orchestra, even if it did seem to end too soon and tended to push the repetition of the descending scale motif perilously close to exhaustion.

Dalbavie is generally talked about as a member of the ‘spectralist’ school of French composers founded by Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail (Dalbavie studied with the latter) but if he is, on the evidence of the three works heard here, his music is decidedly spectralist-lite. Spectralists train their acoustic microscope on a single note and discover within it a teeming world of harmonic spectra which is used to generate the basis of an entire composition. Dalbavie does have a characteristic gesture of periodically bringing the music into sharp focus on a single unison pitch which marks the beginning of a new phase of exploration but I heard much more a connection with the work of Esa-Pekka Salonen, in which a vibrantly expanded pan-tonal language is put at the service of a luminous, even joyous musical voice.

The composer could scarcely have wished for a better first performance. Leif Ove Andsnes performed miracles of dynamic shading, with the lush Messiaen-like chords perfectly weighed and sudden glinting bursts caught with startling virtuosity. With Jukka-Pekka Saraste signing off his tenure as the BBC Symphony’s Principal Guest Conductor, Dalbavie’s brilliant many-hued orchestral writing (what else from a Professor of Orchestration at the Paris Conservatoire!) had the best possible advocate and there was a palpable sense of the orchestra knowing it was onto a winner (not always the case with these players).

Then came one of the best performances of Shostakovich 11 I have heard. More than most performances, this was made to feel like a genuinely organic symphony rather than the film soundtrack it more usually resembles. Thus, while the perpetually brooding first movement perhaps lacked the last word in atmosphere, it was exceptionally clearly articulated. The savage Allegro that follows lacked nothing in raw excitement (the burst of military drumming was genuinely thrilling) but there was a rare inevitability about its progression.

The slow movement, based on the hauntingly melancholic Russian song “You Fell as Heroes” (also used by Britten in his earlier Russian Funeral, although published much later than the symphony), was sustained by string playing of great refinement and nowhere more so than the opening statement of the theme (and its subsequent reprise) by the violas, which sounded as if every last detail of the phrasing had been intensively worked on in rehearsal.

Wondrous things abounded in the finale – the brass had a peculiarly Russian tinge, the ruminative cor anglais solo was beautifully taken by Celia Craig, there was superbly incisive string playing in the ‘patrol’ march, and Shostakovich’s coup de théâtre in bringing back the eerie string music from the very beginning was breathtakingly realised. The clinching bell peals made precisely the right noise and Saraste was surely entitled to his final podium gesture, defying us not to cheer.

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