Prom 45: The Roar of the Lyon

Stravinsky
Song of the Nightingale
Berg
Violin Concerto
Ravel
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Sibelius
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Orchestre National de Lyon
David Robertson


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 August, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London


Although he appeared with it – in an oddly-assorted but enjoyable programme – at the Barbican Hall last year, this was David Robertson’s first Proms appearance with the Lyon Orchestra. He is now in his third season as music director.

Listening to this perceptive account of Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale was to be reminded of Jean Martinon’s work at French Radio during the 1960s and 1970s – a lean, incisive but also flexible sound; wonderfully agile in the opening pages, where the glitter and activity of the Chinese imperial court is vividly evoked, but patient and understated when the Emperor’s presumed death is related in mock-funereal terms. Robertson knitted the various episodes together skilfully, revelling in Stravinsky’s iridescent timbres and witty chinoiserie, and maintaining focus in the latter stages. Audience concentration can often be felt (and heard!) to wander here, but not on this occasion.

Christian Tetzlaff was technically assured but also emotionally engaged in Berg’s Violin Concerto, a combination which would hardly need pointing out were it so rarely achieved. Whether projecting the linear arc of intensity in the opening Andante or the delicate folk-inflexions of the Allegretto, his was a performance of insight. The Lyon Orchestra sounded a shade tentative in the often-sparse but always-significant contribution, while the high-angst of the outer sections of the Allegro were almost too well-controlled, and the cathartic climax of the final Adagio lacked rapture. Yet Tetzlaff shirked none of the challenges in the accompanied cadenza and soared beguilingly in the closing pages – the concerto’s end magically entwined with its beginning.

Ravel’s once ubiquitous Pavane had the requisite chasteness and fragility, but was not the right entrée for the Sibelius symphony. The rarely heard orchestral version of ‘Une barque sur l’océan’ (from Miroirs), a kind of post-Impressionist counterpart to Sibelius’s The Oceanides, would have been ideal in this respect.

Nevertheless, the Sibelius 5 was worth waiting for. Quite simply the finest of a number of performances heard in London over the last year and more, it had an inevitability that marks out Robertson as a natural Sibelian. The opening was effortlessly launched – giving the music room to breathe and flexible enough to convey steady cumulative growth. The central climax was a fraction held back, but the difficult acceleration into the scherzo section was flawless, and the movement proceeded to a visceral conclusion. A highlight of Robertson’s interpretation was his observing of the attacca markings between movements, so rarely done but crucial in projecting the work’s tonal momentum as an unbroken span. It ensured the quixotic, elusive second movement – with piquant contributions from the Lyon woodwind – was in no sense an interlude, and gave to the finale the culminating power that it needs to have. Slightly uncertain horn phrasing and under-strength timpani meant that the ’big tune’ lacked the last degree of majesty, but Robertson ensured that the outcome was nothing less than a thrilling affirmation – with the six final chords poised unerringly between anticipation and fulfilment.

Quite a Proms debut for the Lyon Orchestra and confirmation of Robertson’s interpretative prowess in a wide repertoire. He is clearly a conductor we need to hear more of in the UK, and his impromptu promise – in the absence of an encore – to return soon will hopefully not be long in coming.



  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast on Tuesday, 27 August, at 2.05

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