Two programs by two orchestras dedicated to Debussy’s death centenary (January 21, 2018, Southbank and Barbican Centres)
Pablo Heras-Casado. Credits: Fernando Sancho
Although the day of January 21, 2018 itself was quite uninviting, with snow, sleet and rain competing to get a place in line in order to fall on our heads, coats and feet, it actually contained ravishing musical experiences. It reminded me of 10th December 2017, the ‘Total Immersion’ with BBSCO at the Barbican, when initial hesitations about leaving the house under the snowfall with possible underground closures resulted in a unique day which brought strong musical and personal impressions. Weather is never an obstacle for a true afficionado, and every time I’ll be leaving home under torrential rain or heavy wind, or if I will have to fight a tornado or tsunami, I will now know what to expect – a great revelation in any given art form that had been scheduled.
The Southbank Centre was like a hive buzzing with people in wet coats and drenched hair, and it was indeed a good contrast to what we were about to hear from Philharmonia Orchestra, who started their season with a dedication to Debussy, whom they counterposed to Ravel as a nod to their City of Light program a few years ago. This afternoon Philharmonia invited Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado to lead the musicians through French programme of the concert, while the long-term collaborator of the orchestra, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, was the soloist. The afternoon concert was a wonderful experience of learning about non-linear qualities of music. It started with Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ where from the first notes one was getting to a field or zone where sensual perceptions from music can lead to non-expected directions. Mallarmé’s poem, the inspiration for this piece, explored faun’s recollections of his sexual encounters with nymphs, but the music never presupposes the listener knows it. It creates, to make a pun on de Laclos novel, ‘les liens langoureuses’ expressed in constant dialogues between a flute and oboes, clarinets and French horns. The musical picture created by Debussy is never linear and never has one direction, it could stop or resume again from a new point. One gets a feeling it could have gone differently, like in the case of someone exploring a summer lawn or one’s own memory, and thus one suddenly gets an impression of music heard here and now never to be repeated similarly as it will be different the next time you hear it. This lightness and unpredictability of emotional journey through music was masterfully made possible for us by musicians of Philharmonia and Pablo Heras-Casado.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Credits: Marco Borggreve
The next treat from Philharmonia on that afternoon (the orchestra was constant in its endeavour to make us forget the outside gloom) was Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, performed by a virtuoso Pierre-Laurent Aimard known for his deep and detail-specific explorations of pieces he plays. It was a pleasure to learn that the opening theme came to Ravel on a train from Oxford to London (Oxford does that to people, you know). The concert itself continued that non-linear, mind-opening direction that was started by Debussy’s music. It is well known that this concert’s sparkling qualities result from Ravel being influenced by jazz and syncopated and unexpectedly changing rhythms that are its main characteristics. I had a feeling that Heras-Casado let Aimard lead the orchestra during this concert, and Pierre-Laurent did it not only metaphorically, but physically, inviting the instruments to follow in the wake of his elaborate and rich passages which were so light one could barely believe the French pianist was indeed touching the keys. One could think about Aimard actually improvizing sometimes as one would do in a jazz session if not for the quickness of notes succession, their strict and ‘chiselled’ (as Ravel himself admitted) structural disposition in the concerto and their constant forward momentum. Wonderful Jill Crowther was Aimard’s partner in her languid cor anglais solos during the second theme of the concerto, and deserved special applause in the end of it.
The second half of the concert started with Ravel’s orchestral suite ‘Ma mère l’Oye’ based partly on Charles Perrault’s fairytales (hence the title) and on some other French tales for children. The first thing that came to mind in association with these pieces was Tchaikovsky’s ‘Children’s Album’, as the intention of a composer was quite similar: to re-create images from a child’s imagination and bring the music back to children. However, while Tchaikovsky indeed achieves the simplicity and innocence of a child’s world, Ravel, it seems, is too elaborate, aiming at impressionistic grandeur in his imagery, and it takes an adult to conceive the images that the composer had in mind. Philharmonia sounded like the artist’s palette here, bringing forth many touches of brush to recreate a magical forest, crumbs scattered by Petit Poucet, and ‘le jardin féerique’ in the end of the suite.
The greatest orchestral delight of the afternoon was left for its final part, and Debussy’s splendid and revolutionary ‘La Mer’ was played by Philharmonia under the baton of Heras-Casado, who had been hyper attentive to emotional nuances of music during the concert. During this piece the multi-dimensionality of music heard could be compared to VR experiences that Philharmonia has been involved in creating. This was music where one could stop and look around, imagine the sea or imagine some other natural or supernatural force, be driven by it or oppose oneself to it, and all the time get pleasure of self-liberation in exploring this 3D quality of music that seems impossible considered the fact that Debussy’s music is still streched over a timeline like any other piece of music. One is left with a feeling that deep corners of ‘La Mer’ have been left unexplored, although your emotional resources and your cortex have been, one dares to say, exhausted by trying to do inner work corresponding to the power of that music.
And if that emotional journey was not enough, another one through puddles and heavy rain of the City were awaiting, as, it seems, each musical enjoyment, as British weather teaches us, should be deserved. Having developed a hardcore stamina under long rains and winds of St Petersburg and morally uplifted by Esa-Pekka Salonen’s cello concerto broadcast recently by BBC3, I bravely walked to the Barbican center to continue the Debussy Day with LSO. The LSO, led by the French conductor François-Xavier Roth, had their own different approach to Debussy celebrations. They started their Debussy series (more of them at the Barbican and LSO St Luke’s) with exploration of composers who had influenced Debussy (the program included Wagner, Lalo and Massenet), and made the UK premiere of the Première Suite d’Orchestre which is one of Debussy’s earliest orchestral pieces. One could possibly call that evening ‘Young Debussy’, with a trajectory for futher concerts by LSO opened up by this evening.
François-Xavier Roth, credits: Kevin Leighton
The revelation of the first part of the concert was Édouard Lalo’s cello concerto performed by a young French star Edgar Moreau. Lalo specifically made the cello a constant star and soloist of the piece, and allowed the instrument to acquire human characteristics in its prolonged musings and philosophical, conversation-like passages. When one listens to it, one gets a feeling that an eloquent professor (cello) engages in a monologue while other people present (instruments of orchestra) just listen or chirp something in assent. Sometimes he invites them to contribute their opinions while melancholically asking them for permission to let him muse about something important again and thus taking the initiative back. It was striking to get this image when the person playing it was a 23-year-old Moreau who had the looks of a shy and very serious teenager. Moreau grasped our attention firmly from the very start of the concert, and though he was not assertive about keeping it, it just happened to all of us naturally, like when once get glued to the spot on seeing something beautiful. It just happened that the French cellist produced incredibly beautiful sounds from his cello and was immersed in such deep contemplation and focus in delivering them that one was afraid that a cough or a sneeze could interrupt this unearthly impression one was getting from listening to him. If one could possibly get primed for perceiving a cello concerto, Salonen’s work certainly did its job to my ears, but that was an entirely different experience, may be less complex, but so beautiful one wanted time to stop so that these musings of a human cello would never end. But they eventually did, without listeners getting a sense of final touch or point, altough Lalo specifically invoked the atmosphere of a Spanish fiesta in the end. It was more like a conversation just stopped mid-air, with the promise for it to resume again, and with new force. The audiences were overwhelmed and applauded Moreau to play an encore which he did.
The second part of the wonderful LSO concert was a comparison between two orchestral suites: ‘Le Cid’ by Jules Massenet and ‘Première Suite d’Orchestre’ by Debussy. It is interesting to listen to a piece that was never fully accomplished and was scattered in composer’s sketchbooks, with Philippe Manoury completing the score for the third movement (Rêve). This orchestral piece, with its striking changes of mood and colour masterfully highlighted by Roth, seems very much like a preparation for ‘Fêtes galantes’ composed by Debussy later on Verlaine’s poetry. It has the same links with theatricality and danse, revealed even in the pieces’ titles – ‘Fête’, ‘Ballet’, ‘Cortège et Bacchanale’. It seems that young Debussy’s head was already imbibed with the atmosphere of exoticism that was characteristic for the turn of the century and could be pictured as a lavish, extravagant danse under the moonlight which could also be one’s last. It was inspiring to hear and understand from where the composer was taking its roots and encounter the same rich orchestrations that would lead him to multi-dimensionality already heard in the afternoon. Roth finished the evening with a genuine flourish performing Massenet ‘Le Cid’ suite with its seven pieces dedicated to particular regions in Spain and invoking their different atmospheres and customs. These danses, only vaguely related to the legend of Le Cid, are celebratory in nature and were written specifically for the ballerina Rosita Mauri, who probably delivered them with panache. It was quite exciting to see how Roth himself was so moved by Spanish rhythms of the suite that he actually was dancing and bowing in the box, almost ready to fly from his place so that these sounds could brighten and electrify the Barbican Hall completely. No weather, however bad, could bring the listeners back down to earth after this colourful finale of LSO’s Debussy concert. And luckily for all involved, there are more to come.