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Vivier, Ravel, Prokofiev and Mussorgsky/Ravel

Claude Vivier: Orion (1979) (UK première)
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major (1929/1931)
Prokofiev: Suite: The Love for Three Oranges (1919 rev 1924)
Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition (1874/1922)

Martha Argerich – piano, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Dutoit  

PROM 60: Royal Albert Hall – 30 August 2009

Any appearance by Martha Argerich is a special occasion and tonight was no exception. The hall was sold out, a ticket tout was doing good business outside and the atmosphere in the auditorium was electrifying.

 To start, music by Calude Vivier, a French Canadian composer who died very young and, although well known in his homeland, is still, despite the best efforts of Pierre Audi at both the Almeida Festival and at Netherlands Opera unknown here. Orion, which was premièred by Dutoit with the Montreal Symphony, received mixed reception from the press at that first perfroamnce, and it’s easy to hear why. Scored for a huge orchestra, including much tuned percussion and gongs, the work is based on a motto theme heard at the outset given by the trumpet; the various constituent parts of this theme are then developed. There is much ritual to this music, and the argument isn’t at all obvious, but it’s a very strong and exciting piece, full of the most sensuous sounds. At the end the opening trumpet idea returns, as in Ives’s Unanswered Question, and we are left wondering if the question has been answered and if, on the journey Vivier has taken us, we have actually been anywhere or if we’ve just been looking at the same thing from many different angles. Dutoit directed a performance of great beauty and strength and his obvious understanding of the work was audible in every bar. Whether this will enthuse people to investigate Vivier further is a moot point for Orion doesn’t have the obvious immediate attractiveness of Lonely Child (1980), Siddharta (1975/1976), his earlier, more complex yet, strangely, more approachable orchestral work, or his, for me, masterpiece Prologue pour un Marco Polo (1982). But whatever tonight’s audience might have thought of this work, one thing is certain: Vivier is a musical force to be reckoned with, and it’s time that we, in this country, had that reckoning.  

Martha Argerich has made the Ravel G major Concerto very much her own – I believe that the very first time she and Dutoit worked together, in 1959, they gave this work – and as an ever evolving interpretation this performance differed from other performances I have heard her give. Choosing a fast tempo for the opening Allegramente both soloist and orchestra scintillated us with Ravel’s sparkling music. It was great fun, and quite exhilarating. Then came the blues; laid back and languorous, never sleazy, Argerich worked her magic at the keyboard before launching into a bravura display in the development section and a quite magnificent recapitulation. More blues, with an excellent contribution from harpist Suzy Wilson–Kawalec, and the movement ended in breathtaking fashion with the final dash beautifully handled. The slow movement, whose delicate and very restrained piano solo always makes me think of Satie, seemed to simply suspend time, and the fine support from flute – Emer McDonagh – and, especially, cor anglais – Leila Ward – made this an experience fit for the Gods. The finale is, quite simply, a real hoot and, again, choosing a very fast tempo, everyone threw themselves at the piece in a frenzy of good spirits. As one can imagine, the audience went wild and wasn’t going to allow Argerich to leave without just a little more and she obliged with a very nicely pointed performance of a Sonata in G minor by Scarlatti.  

After the interval orchestral fireworks were the order of the day. The Suite from Prokofiev’s surreal opera The Love for Three Oranges, after Carlo Gozzi, is in six compact movements, some of them being quite aggressive, one is the well known, and hilariously satirical, March and there’s some delightful love music for the Prince and the Princess. This music is seldom heard but tonight, with the RPO on the top form it has been enjoying these past two seasons, it seemed like the well know repertoire piece which Pictures at an Exhibition has become, in the Ravel arrangement, and which ended the concert. Here we had an example of just how exciting orchestral music, and how compelling great orchestral playing, can be. There was much to enjoy here, the smooth sax and gorgeous muted strings in The Old Castle, the trumpet articulation in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, the playfulness of Tuileries, stunning brass in Catacombs and the total aural splendour of The Grand Gate at Kiev. This made for a resplendent ending to a very satisfying concert. If this is the quality of music making we can expect from this orchestra with Dutoit in charge I, for one, can hardly wait to hear more.  

David Bird


Haydn and Shostakovich

Haydn: Symphony No.100 in G major, Military, (1794)
Symphony No.10 in E minor, op.93 (1953)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Mariss Jansons

PROM 62: Royal Albert Hall –
1 September 2009

Written in Vienna for his second visit to London, Haydn’s 100th Symphony comes from the time when England and Holland were allied with Austria against republican France. According to an early review, the slow movement – graphically portraying “the hellish roar of war increase to a climax of horrid sublimity” - was greeted with repeated cries of “Encore! in which the Ladies themselves could not forbear to join.” Paring down the orchestra, Jansons sat his violins left and right, quite right too, used period timpani, and drew ravishing playing in the slow introduction to the first movement, whose allegro was quite sparkling and made all the better by having the exposition repeated. The slow movement, with its inclusion of percussion, was given quite straight forwardly, but Jansons knew exactly when to use some of the subtlest rubato possible to heighten the tension and drama. At the end of this movement the three percussion players left the stage – it was obvious that Jansons had something special in mind for later. The minuet was graceful, perhaps a tad too fast for dancing, but it always kept a smile on its face. The finale was a real romp and the joviality was heightened at the end when the percussion section, complete with a Jingling Johnny, marched onto the stage, taking up a position in front of the conductor, and added to the fun of the music. A real coup this.

Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony is a tortured work, written, according to the composer's letters, between July and October 1953, that is after the death of Stalin (although pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva claimed that it was completed in 1951). There are few in Soviet music that had better claim to regard the death of Stalin as a liberating event than Shostakovich. Stalin had tormented the composer, humiliated him, stripped him of his teaching posts, forced him to represent the Soviet Union at Peace Congresses – when in America a crowd stood outside his hotel shouting that he jump from his hotel window and join the libereated in the West! So the 10th Symphony is, probably, a reflection of what he must have seen as the start of a new chapter in his life, one which would allow him more artistic freedom.

But this Symphony is no easy ride. The long first movement is steeped in tragedy, one only has to think of the harrowing climax and the lament of the two piccolos in the coda to grasp this. Jansons understands what is going on here and built a movement of almost unbearable intensity, coaxing playing of the very highest order from his orchestra as the music makes its inexorable way forwards. Never scared to use a little artistic licence when it comes to observation of the tempo markings, he used some subtle changes of speed to highlight the calamity. It worked splendidly. The scherzo is said to be a portrait of the Great Leader and Teacher himself and it’s a short, sharp shock of a piece, grotesque, unforgiving and vicious. Jansons played down this latter aspect of the music, but added a weight to the music which brought a feeling of the composer’s unforgiving thoughts. The third movement seems to be a pastoral scene – but I have no idea where this supposed rural idyll is meant to take place. And, bucolic or not, what are those horn calls doing? And why is there the huge explosion in the middle of the movement? Jansons was quite deliberate in his interpretation here, keeping a tight rein on the proceedings and, again, making the music heavier than it is usually given. The finale, after a dark introduction, seems to show a more optimistic face to the world, but does it really do that? The work concludes with brass and timpani repeatedly reinforcing the composer’s own musical signature DSCH (standing for D Sch – S is Eb and H B natural in German notation). The ending? Some have said that it isn’t satisfactory and others that it is a perfect summation. Whatever you believe I find it brings the work to a fulfilling, if somewhat disturbing, conclusion. This was a magisterial performance with superb orchestral playing and an interpretation of great integrity.

The 6,000 in the audience weren’t to let the orchestra go that quickly and two encores were enticed from the players – but, truth to tell, when has a visiting orchestra ever needed persuading that an encore would be nice? And who wouldn’t want to hear more of this splendid orchestra?

Sibelius’s Valse Triste showed the most delicate of touches, with the climax not overwhelming the winsomeness of the outer sections and to end, more Shostakovich; the riotous interlude between scenes 6 and 7 from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. An unforgettable evening.

David Bird