The Shadows of Time

Dutilleux
The Shadows of Time
Ravel
Concerto for Piano (Left-hand) and Orchestra
Berlioz
Symphonie fantastique, Op.14

Choristers from Eton College Chapel Choir: Joshua Cooter, Alex Eager & Alex Robarts (trebles)

Roger Muraro (piano)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Thierry Fischer


Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 20 July, 2007
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This attractive programme, full of correspondences between three utterly distinctive French composers – and not least in closeness of chronology: Berlioz died in 1869 (when only in his mid-sixties), Ravel was born in 1875, and Henri Dutilleux arrived in 1916 more than 20 years before Ravel died (when in his early-sixties). All three share a concern for sound and lucidity.

This Prom began with Henri Dutilleux’s Boston Symphony Orchestra commission, “The Shadows of Time” (completed in 1997). As ever with this most fastidious of composers, the orchestral writing is a marvel of clarity, dynamism, colour and inflection – translucent and lit from within – such painstaking notation never clouding the composer’s direct and emotional communication. In music full of suggestion to always-relevant experiences, Dutilleux (who remains active as a composer) distils associations of wartime (for him World War II) neither specifically nor graphically but through activity and eloquence that is musically satisfying and in-built with significance and at its most poignant in the third section (‘Mémoire des ombres’, which is dedicated “to Anne Frank and all innocent children of the world”) and in the uneasy calm of the final (fifth) section, ‘Dominante bleue’.

This well-prepared, sensitively executed performance (finding equivalence with Ravel, anticipating the Left-hand Concerto and reminding of Mother Goose) – the three trebles (Dutilleux asks for one or more boy’s voice) blending and projecting excellently (the latter achieved without spurious amplification) – made a powerful and memorable impression, the large orchestra very responsive to Thierry Fischer’s direction (BBCNOW’s recently appointed Principal Conductor). The work’s UK premiere had been at the Proms in 1998, Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting, so it was good to hear it again during this festival; it all helps recent music to enter the repertoire.

Roger Muraro has come to prominence of late given that his Accord recording of Ravel’s music for solo piano has been identified as one of the many recordings of other pianists hijacked under the name of Joyce Hatto – initially celebrated in some quarters and now shown to be a notorious renaissance.

This account of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left-hand, one of the composer’s darkest works, began with little threat or atmosphere but with an appropriately coarse-grained contrabassoon solo (quite French in timbre). There’s something curious about ‘watching’ a performance of this work (completed for Paul Wittgenstein in 1930, who had lost his right arm in World War I) in that a single hand stalking across the keyboard takes on an accursed appearance straight out of a horror flick. Not that there is anything but realism in the music – some finger slips aside, Muraro suggested inwardness and defiance, and he created a delicate fantasy, a web of finely spun pianissimo. There was though also something rather ponderous in the way the slower episodes were unfolded and, from all the performers, a distinct lack of the macabre feeling that lies as subterranean menace. The final cadenza lacked ultimate searching although the trudge of the final bars was well conveyed.

Muraro offered an encore, a movement from Ravel’s Mother Goose (transcribed from the piano-duet original) that further confirmed his exquisite quiet playing and which unfortunately competed with the ringing of a mobile phone. A similar fate befell the opening of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a performance nonetheless that began promisingly, a volatile exchange between languor and excitable passions. But the performance as a whole, too scrubbed clean and rather stylised, failed to engage. Some poetic turns in ‘Scène aux champs’ caught the ear (although this movement dragged and the oboe responses were not ‘distant’ enough), but Berlioz’s imagination and originality was rarely suggested – some questionable note-values in ‘The March to the Scaffold’, tame bells, then ‘softened’ brass in the dire summonsing of the ‘Dies irae’ in the ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ finale (yet brass could be overloud and imbalanced elsewhere) and, overall, an approach that was curiously angular, foursquare and expressionless.

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