Pelléas et Mélisande – Suite
Tout un monde lontain
Bacchus et Ariadne – Suite No.2
Steven Isserlis (cello)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 4 September, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Perception is all! After a great concert the previous evening (Prom 58) I was looking forward to another with the Czech Philharmonic. My liking for Ashkenazy and his honest, genuine and warm approach to music-making was detailed in my previous review: that perception is undimmed. Although I find it odd, I have to accept that others may have a different perception. When one of the front-row prommers (he of the ’Prommers Orchestra’) stomped off angrily at the final chord of La Mer bitterly complaining that the violas were out of tune and that the second-half had conclusively proved that the Czech Phil was not a world-class orchestra, what can you say?
I would argue that such a view was totally wrong. It either is or not ’in tune’. But there are so many variables. I always feel for people who have ’perfect pitch’ – they wince at every infelicitous bit of tuning. But how can you have perfect pitch, when one orchestra will play at A=440 (like most British orchestras), others at A=442 (most European orchestras) and some at A=444 (most American orchestras). I’m told that the Berlin Philharmonic, to sound brighter than all the rest, plays at A=445! Then there are the period bands who play at something in the region of A=415 – very flat indeed to those that claim perfect pitch?
This is an aside. The real point is that music is more than just being in tune – it is about architecture, precision, meaning and spirit (and much else). The secret formula in combining all these factors is unquantifiable and indescribable (so I won’t bother); in any case it is as much determined by the listener as the conductor, soloist and players. That is where perception and expectation come in. None of this is finite, and I have been to many performances when the playing may have not been the most precise, but the spirit – excitement or heart-wrenching pathos – has outweighed the technical flaws and I have been awed and amazed. The reverse is true: technical perfection does not necessarily make for a great performance and (soapbox time) the conductors and soloists for whom I have particular disdain are those that may be note-perfect but who are emotionally redundant. Yes, I mean some of those who are regarded as classical music’s great stars – the Barenboims, Kissins, Maazels, Tilson Thomases and Vengerovs of this world. I wish they could learn that music is about the soul, it must mean something, it must affect you – I don’t just want notes, I want music!
If (and I think it a very big if) the viola section on this night, at the end of a taxing programme, was slightly above or below pitch, does it matter? Not to me, as I was enraptured by a well-thought-out programme lovingly conducted and played. Like the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra the week before (Proms 53 & 54), the Czech Phil have proved that, so far, the central European visitors have been the tops at this year’s Proms.
Starting with Fauré’s delectable Pelléas et Mélisande, Ashkenazy was joined by Steven Isserlis for a tribute to the doyen of French composers, Henri Dutilleux, who is 85 this year. Whereas Fauré had been inspired by Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama, Dutilleux’s inspiration was Charles Baudelaire’s pre-symbolist, heavily-charged poetry, five quotes of which are used to head each of the movements of his cello concerto, ’Tout un monde lointain…’ (A whole world remote…). Isserlis’s gut strings on his Feuermann Stradivarius (on loan from the Nippon Foundation) were easily a match for the febrile invention that typifies the faster movements in Dutilleux’s five-movement plan, and they sang too in the more rhapsodic and lyrical slow second and fourth movements. On a non-musical note, there was a delightful moment when Ashkenazy leaned from the podium to turn Isserlis’s music over at a particularly awkward page-turn! Ashkenazy himself never looks particularly settled with a score in front of him, though he coaxed fine support from his Czech players in this rapt and distinctive concerto, which may – unfortunately – have been the main reason for the poor attendance.
After the interval Ashkenazy, conducting from memory, treated us to Roussel’s orgiastic Second Suite from his ballet Bacchus et Ariadne.After hearing its model (Daphnis et Chloé) earlier in the season (Prom 48) it was good to hear Roussel’s work, more concise and rhythmically propulsive than Ravel’s and hence (for me, at any rate) more immediately enjoyable. The Orchestra seemed to be having a great time too!
So to La Mer, illustrated by a picture in the programme of Debussy taking photographs on the balcony of a beachside Eastbourne hotel, where he finished the work. Much more involving than Gergiev and the World Orchestra for Peace last year, this had élan and éclat in (buckets and) spades, all the more amazing for an orchestra from a country that is totally land-locked. The middle movement raced off at a furious lick and, unlike Satie – who told Debussy that he particularly liked the bit of the first movement (From Dawn to Midday on the Sea) at ’quarter to 11’ (that’s how I remember the quote: Robert Maycock’s programme note stated ’quarter to 12’) – I liked all of this.
No encore, but then the Orchestra had just played one of the most taxing programmes of the year. I hope they are back soon.
- BBC Radio 3 rebroadcast Wednesday, 12 September, at 2 o’clock