Darkness Illuminated

Mozart: Serenata Notturna, K334
Ives: Central Park in the Dark
Debussy: Nocturnes
Takemitsu: Quotation of Dream
Sibelius: Nightride and Sunrise.
BBC Philharmonic conducted by Juanjo Mena
Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott (pianos)

20 January 2012 - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
This concert kicks off a festival of Debussy's works being given in Manchester early in 2012 under the title "Reflections of Debussy" - Noriko Ogawa is a leading light in this celebration of the composer's 150th birthday.  There was a broad nocturnal theme to this concert and all but one cases the pieces have a highly visual element to them.
It began with Mozart's Serenata Notturna - a domestic serenade but somewhat bolder than I'd want in my house in the middle of a party.  Mena has - like many conductors and soloists - appropriated the best bits of historically informed practice to shape a lean sound from a full modern symphony orchestra.  Its always struck me as a rather comical piece in the wrong hands and Mena was far from that.  It was spruce and ship-shape but ultimately it stills flits from soloist to ensemble with such lack of ease that I worry one day everyone is going to play at once.  The single bass instruments either struggle to be heard against a modern ensemble or dominate in an artificial way.  It was nicely played here but I still wouldn't give the piece house room were it not for Mozart's beguiling, smiling melodies.  So he wins - again!
Coming out after the Mozart Mena announced they were to play an extra item - and what a treat it was. 

Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark is no more obscure in its description than Nightride and Sunrise.  But Ives is a deal more interesting especially in his harmonies; usually best appreciated after the initial shock of his music wears off.  The gentle distant slightly foggy opening. As a depiction of darkness, it is anything but natural, set in that huge park in the middle of that sprawling city.  There is much to enjoy as the music of that city are approached as our subject walks through the artificial-natural environment - the casinos, bands, instrumentalists firing out popular songs, fire engines, singers all come into view and fade from it.  A similar technique is used by Takemitsu incidentally - as though walking in a garden.  As a national radio orchestra we have come to expect our BBC bands to be able to play Mozart one minute and Ives the next but when you hear it as I did tonight - it does seem to me remarkable that the players can do this with such facility.  Mena knew just when to let Ives’ chaotic side go and the central section was suitably wild and raucous and the darkness descending was a little bit fresher for the outbursts.  A fine addition to the programme - I wonder how and when they decided to put it in?
Almost immediately the orchestra took up with another grand piece of impressionistic music, Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes - three pieces which so nearly make a glorious symphony but never quite get their act together.  There are three sections Nuages (clouds), Fêtes (Festivals) and Sirénes (Sirens/Mermaids).  In my view this is a fantastic work of great beauty, simplicity and import - this latter because it does not describe in any great detail an event, but very much the evocation of the sensations of a place.  The timeless moments such as the stasis of a cloudscape, are so beautifully realised but its seems to run against the very principle of music to hold time still. 

Mena has a particular wizardry in soft, slow music.  He builds a strong layer of sound from the low strings upwards and it has a fantastic plastic quality about it.  Here he used that to vary the colour palette too.  In Nuages it is a water colour wash, in Fêtes it is the background for colourful splashes of bright oils and in the diaphanous world of the sea the pastel shades of the sirens as the ride the waves is against this deeply alluring foundation colour.

His reading was more interesting than most too - a more complex story of the sirens who are at first sung, where marked as marked fortissimo, with clear almost bold lines, against a sparkling sea.  This gives the piece much more mystery than any other reading I’ve heard compounded with (if I dare use the term) a disturbing under-current where their voice still alluring in a sea that’s not so inviting with patches of darker water.  It was played beautifully too - in the first movement with a colour which surpassed my reference recording that by Haitink and the Concertgebouw.  It was fascinating to hear the last movement revealed as something a little bit sinister - just heightens our interest.
In the interval on Radio 3 we had Debussy's piano music played by Noriko Ogawa.  Further set up for the next of my musical treats.
Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream is a double piano concerto - the pianists were Noriko Ogawa and Kathryn Stott.  The work was premiered in 1991 in London, five years before the composer’s death.  It began with much laughter in the Bridgewater Hall as Ogawa struggled with a recalcitrant piano stool, and eventually another had to be found for her.  My last hearing Quotation of Dream must have been ten or so years ago and much as I love Takemitsu it had fallen off my radar.  To hear it live - indeed to hear any Takemitsu live is something of a different experience. In the concert hall spatial awareness  comes into the mix but on the radio the extra drama of a live performance comes over quite well - piano stools aside.  
The work shifts restlessly between quotes from Debussy’s La Mer and Takemitsu’s earlier work.  And its form is rather like a fitful dream especially as it’s quotes are sometimes life sized and distinct but at others distorted, half heard and disordered.  The work comes from a time when Takemitsu was taken up with “sea” related works.  But it is also a work of the uncertainty of night time and the dreamscape which also preoccupied the composer at times.
This performance was compact and timeless.  The soloists and Mena never languished in Takemitsu’s “warm bath” harmonies a feeling of movement didn’t diminish the making of complex and intriguing textures, with fleeting melodic lines like wave tops. It feels like this is music that an orchestra inhabits.  Like Debussy’s Nuages, the composer contrives for the players to take us out of our time: moving our temporal appreciation from marked time to experienced time.  Lost in this I forgot at times I’m listening to a score being interpreted not that it sounds improvised, but that it sounded spontaneous.  It is enigmatic in its mood and we struggle like the dreamer to make sense of all these parts  The two pianists move - sometimes together and sometimes independently, weaving into teh complex orchestral textures.  It is gently disorientating and slightly perturbing: like that moment when we struggle to recount our dreams - real for a moment then suddenly illusive.  I must not wait so long for re-acquaintance.
Not content delivering so much of my favourite repertoire, the concert ended with a different view of a difficult Sibelius tone poem - I have to say I could be fonder of this piece but this reading did cast it in a different light. 

Nightride and Sunrise doesn’t get many outings in concert or on record.  It is profoundly pictorial but surprisingly difficult to unravel.  The key here may by Sibelius’ desire to demonstrate just how uncomfortable a sleigh ride through the night to St Petersburg was.  Certainly the first section is a  battle for the conductor, according to Sir Simon Rattle.  Mena delivered it at speed and the orchestra maintained their razor sharp response despite the heavy load that had preceded this one.  Subtleties abound in a score smothered in notes - I relished the double bass interjections, almost disdainful.
The central section has a contrasting stillness to the lumpy earlier ride; its folksy melody sympathetically delivered: in these moments one is reminded what a top rank orchestra the BBC Philharmonic are now. And in truth one of the things I was waiting for - having heard their tremendous contribution to the Adagio of Bruckner’s Sixth before Christmas - was the radiant glory of the brass in the sunrise.  Mena and his players delivered a different view of the piece, concentrating on the creeping illumination of the dawn embodied in the woodwind.  It revealed more than I expected.  Returning to the score I found Mena had interpreted as written and that where others have forced the brass - in the score its the woodwind choir which heralds the new day.
If nothing else this concert was confirmation of a growing ambitious and adventurous partnership between orchestra and conductor.  Despite the challenge of these pieces, the players took the audience with them on each journey - those who listened in the hall did so in rapt silence mostly and given that its the season for chesty colds in Manchester that was no mean feat.  If you haven’t heard them I would recommend them and my next step will be to hear them live.


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