Rapsodie espagnole
Symphony No.3 in G minor, Op.42

Denyce Graves (mezzo-soprano)

BBC Philharmonic
Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Yan-Pascal Tortelier was a Proms regular during his productive 10-year spell as Principal Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic, and this concert confirmed their rapport has in no way diminished.

The all-French programme was well chosen to demonstrate Tortelier’s conviction across this repertoire – beginning with a Rapsodie espagnole that captured the tense mystery of ‘Prélude à la nuit’ (its dynamic shadings tellingly observed) and insinuating lilt of ‘Malagueña’ as effectively as the cumulative energy of ‘Feria’, with the marginal lack of sultry repose in ‘Habanera’ being the only flaw in an otherwise finely-conceived and vividly-executed performance.

Perhaps this concert’s most interesting facet was its underlining of an alternative lineage in modern French music: one stemming from Ravel, via Roussel, to Dutilleux (and arguably Maurice Ohana) – rather than the Debussy-Messiaen-Boulez axis more often encountered. Although his stature has never been higher, the small but vital output of Henri Dutilleux (who turned 90 earlier this year) continues to be under-represented in UK concert halls; inexplicably given that it brings the radical and traditional into so persuasive an accord. Rarely more so than in Métaboles (1964), his response to a commission from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra that amalgamates elements of symphony, concerto for orchestra and tone poem into a continuous span whose five sections are permeated by the sound and also substance of the indelible opening chord. Tortelier is no stranger to this work, and his unforced but sharply-focussed approach made the most of its vibrant expressive and instrumental contrasts – culminating in a propulsive ‘Flamboyant’ that underlined the oblique harmonic strategy with a QED rare in music of this period.

After the interval, more Ravel, in the guise of his song-cycle “Shéhérazade” – its ostensible ‘window on the East’ evincing emotions no less felt for being so submerged. A sense of the ominous of which Denyce Graves (replacing the indisposed Felicity Lott) seemed largely unaware – with the result that, for all the undoubted appeal of her burnished mezzo and her elegant articulation of Tristan Klingsor’s decidedly fin de siècle verse, the building-up of emotion over the opening ‘Asie’ was wholly due to Tortelier’s control of tension between and across each verse – before the gentle ‘touch-down’ of its brief postlude. Graves was more attuned to the manner of the subsequent two songs, finding a languorous poignancy in ‘La flûte enchantée’ and wistful longing in ‘L’indifférent’ such as confirmed this work as its composer’s ‘coming of age’ in more than just the musical sense.

Just as Dutilleux found himself struggling to escape the legacy of Ravel’s influence in the 1940s, so Albert Roussel had to jettison the whole post-Impressionist aesthetic to reach a mature idiom. By no means the first instance of this, the Third Symphony (1930) remains his most popular – even though the era of its strongest influence is long past. Nor was Roussel afraid to inject either an overt Romanticism or a deft urbanity into its invigorating neo-classical outlines; qualities that Tortelier emphasised in heady accounts of the Adagio and scherzo respectively. The outer movements were just as persuasive – reminding one that, while Roussel’s models may have been eighteenth-century, his handling of form was distinctly contemporary. Certainly there was no lack of impact during the finale’s triumphal apotheosis, here rounding off a fine evening’s music-making to exhilarating effect.

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