Concert: Ravel and Stravinsky RFH 19.02.15

Ravel: Pavane pour une Infanta Defunte
Ravel: Shéhérazade*
Ravel: Concerto of Left Hand **

Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910 edition)

Camilla Nyland*
Pierre Laurent Aimard **

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Royal Festival Hall, 19 February 2015

The third in the Philharmonia’s “City of light” concerts had a programme with masses of variety and huge orchestral challenge.  There's something stubbornly attractive about Stravinsky's ballet score despite it's relative simplicity and obvious debt to it's forebears - underlined in Roth's fascinating and scintillating disc of the ballet and it's influences reviewed here.  The remainder of the programme was made of pieces by Ravel and they provide a useful survey of his styles which one could broadly characterise as nostalgic, sensual and grief-stricken.

The "City of Light" series has provided more than adequate evidence that Salonen has made the Philharmonia one of the best orchestras in the world in this territory (and much else) and I took away a feeling that this conductor/orchestra are at the top of their game at the moment - well worth seeing.  What's more they seem to know it too - there's a great series of mutually admiring responses from orchestral players, soloists and conductor at the end of pieces.  I don't think I've seen a conductor so obviously delighted in his orchestra's work as Salonen was at the end of the ballet and with good reason. 

The Pavane is an old style orchestral lollipop which doesn't find it’s way onto programmes very often any more.  I grew up on it - but I think this is the first time I’ve heard it live.  It’s brevity belies the weight of it’s topic.  And the Philharmonia took great pleasure in moulding the phrasing in its moody impressionistic mists.  The exposed wind solos are treacherous and were expertly negotiated.  It remains a seductive wistful reminder of the days when we got a bag full of lollipops in the first half of a concert.

Camilla Nyland's Sheherazade was impressive: full of nuance in the final travelogue and simply ravishing there and elsewhere.  The surtitles helped enormously - better than squinting at a programme in the half light.  It is a piece where it's easy to overlook the incidental details when taken over by its broad sensual sweep. But Salonen was attentive to both singer and acoustic in bringing forward the telling detail.

Pierre Laurent Aimard strode onto the stage with a kind of purpose which was immediately reflected in his playing of a score I have struggled with over the years.  Aimard has the power to force telling contrasts in the piece and I found this more persuasive than any other performance I've come across on disc or in the concert hall.  The raw power he mustered set up a whole series of dramatic tensions which just didn't stack up in the hands of more lyrical pianists.  The superficiality of it's content and the intensity of it's subject were - in the performance - laid bare.  A very powerful end to a first half which illuminated a great deal of beauty in Ravel but much more than that in addition.

The second half was given to Stravinsky's Firebird Ballet given in it's original full score with the host of percussionists and all those bits Stravinsky should have included in a slightly longer Suite in addition to his 20 odd minute cut down.  It was evident from the off that Salonen was intent on getting this how he wanted it and the elegant negotiation of the solos suggested the orchestra were ready to give it a very finely judged performance.  If the set pieces seemed a bit lighter than I expected it was all to the good at the end.  

There are plenty who will tell you that this is still a rather traditional Russian ballet score - out of the school of Glazunov, Tchaikovsky etc. Indeed François Xavier Roth's disc with Les Siecles demonstrates just that -ècles/dp/B00563YIWC  pairing the ballet with a reconstruction of it's composite prelude with pieces from the 19th Century by Grieg, Arensky and Sinding.  But it does have that typical Stravinsky hallmark - drive.  The energy is palpable in the music and in this performance Salonen meticulously graded the orchestra's effort to a explosive ending.  It was a masterly performance with at every turn nuance and detail superbly presented by the orchestra.  At the end there was massive applause but it was noticable how Salonen was clapping his players and they were clapping him.  Great team work.


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