Pictures at an Exhibition

Mother Goose – Suite
Correspondances [London premiere]
Scherzo fantastique, Op.3
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 27 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The ghost of Maurice Ravel hovered – benignly, of course – over this concert. Literally so in the opening and closing items, and figuratively in the new work by Dutilleux and in the performance of Stravinsky’s early orchestral piece.

Like Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures’, Ravel’s Mother Goose was originally intended for the piano. In the latter case for four hands, but, as ever when Ravel orchestrated his piano works, new sonorities and depths are revealed that are not suspected in the original. This performance was characterised by delicacy and refinement, and exposed the melancholy which is not far below the surface of these ‘cinq pièces enfantines’.

The touching and poignant woodwind scoring was sensitively played by a supple CBSO under its Music Director. Indeed, the orchestral playing throughout this concert was on a high level, the players’ response to Sakari Oramo unimpeachable. In Mother Goose there was not a hint of inappropriate over-indulgence; my only quibble being some rather manicured string phrasing in the fifth and final piece.

Generally speaking, there was commendable flow and admirable contrast between the sections. The playful ‘pagoda’ music was delightful and both ‘Beauty and the Beast’ well characterised – the latter by a superb contrabassoon. With the one reservation noted, the finale blossomed and did not lose proportion and become bloated at the climax.

Rather sterner fare was served next in Henri Dutilleux’s “Correspondances”, for soprano and orchestra, dating from 2003.

The composer has gathered letters from diverse sources which, he tells us, “reflect the mystical thinking of their authors. Together with the idea of the Cosmos, this is what strikes me as a unifying element.”

The first song takes what is, in effect, an address to the god Shiva by Indian writer Prithwindra Mukherjee: “Flames, o flames that invade the sky”. Orange lighting was projected behind the orchestra. Was this really necessary? This did not distract, however, from this buoyant music full of propulsive energy, music seemingly by a young man rather than one heading for his ninetieth birthday.

The whirling of this ‘Cosmic Dance’ gave way to a gentler interlude which featured the distinctive timbre of an accordion and led, in turn, to the setting of a letter from Alexander Solzhenitsyn to Rostropovich and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya. The Russian writer was thanking them for the help and protection they had given him ten years previously. The music here was more brooding, with some intense string writing.

Two brief settings of Rilke, reflecting on the nature of sound itself, were given in a quasi-recitative and then followed the final and most lengthy section, parts of a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Théo. It was here that the spirit of Ravel’s Shéhérazade suggested itself with the eloquent interplay between voice and orchestra.

Dutilleux deploys a large orchestra, but at no point was Barbara Hannigan swamped by it. She gave a performance – from memory – of total security and projected the text and sometimes-awkward vocal lines with complete conviction. She reached a stratospherically high penultimate note, bringing “Correspondances” to an ecstatic conclusion.

A single hearing cannot reveal everything in this multi-faceted score, but with its sensitive word-painting and fine instrumental writing, it is certainly a work to hear again. My one reservation in an otherwise convincing rendering was the pauses between sections, allowing the coughers and rustlers to be let off the leash. The performance was well-received and the composer greeted with hearty cheering.

Stravinsky’s early Scherzo fantastique is a tour de force of orchestral writing, with considerable virtuosity required from all sections. The CBSO did not fail to deliver; though I would have preferred some of the articulation to have been rather sharper etched; the music here emerged more like Ravel than Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, though the imagination and invention of the young Stravinsky still emerged strongly.

The performance of ‘Pictures’ was fresh, invigorating, imaginative, and extremely well played and interpreted. Oramo’s refusal to linger between sections was a commendable feature, and Mussorgsky’s sequence acquired an almost dramatic quality.Tempos were well-contrasted, with ‘Limoges’ being a busy place indeed and ‘Gnomus’ and ‘Baba-Yaga’ full of tension, abetted by silent pauses full of tension. In ‘Il vecchio castello’, Alistair Parnell’s alto saxophone was poetic eloquence itself, whilst ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ built to a climax with all the resplendence once could wish for.

This was, in fact, that rare phenomenon: a well-planned concert, executed and interpreted with flair and imagination.

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