Thursday, 2 February 2012

Von Otter/LSO/Tilson Thomas - Debussy and Weill, 2 February 2012

Barbican Hall

Debussy – Dance sacrée et danse profane
Weill – Die sieben Todsünden
Debussy, orch. Robin Holloway – En blanc et noir
Debussy – La mer

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Bryn Lewis (harp)
Synergy Vocals (Paul Badley, Gerard O’Beirne (tenors), Michael Dore, Paul Charrier (basses))
London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)


I failed to discern any rationale behind programming the Brecht-Weill ballet chanté with various works by Debussy, one orchestrated by Robin Holloway. The performances certainly extended beyond typical concert length, not helped by a ten-minute delay in beginning, and more to the point, the programme rather felt as if there were one too many piece. How, then, fared what for many was presumably the main attraction, Anne Sofie von Otter in The Seven Deadly Sins? Patchily, I am afraid. There were several problems, but most of all von Otter herself, whose performance seemed quite misconceived. From the opening of the Prologue, her reading lacked edge, seeming far too well-mannered. There is not a single way to perform this repertoire, and not everyone is Lotte Lenya – indeed, of course, no one else is – but, despite the microphone, von Otter sounded either ill at ease or merely pleasant (as in the second of the sins, ‘Stolz’). The performance seemed more an example of that most dubious of enterprises, ‘classical crossover’, than social critique. Oddly, on the occasional instances when she ditched her microphone, vocal production sounded more idiomatic. As for the would-be cool foot-tapping in ‘Zorn’, let us not dwell upon it. The gentlemen of Synergy Vocals were on far better form, though I am not sure that the nature of the amplification helped them. Theirs at least added an edge quite lacking elsewhere, rendering the Family’s hypocritical bourgeois morality all the more repellent. Perhaps surprisingly, Michael Tilson Thomas’s conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra was also rather tame, at least for a good two-thirds of the work. ‘Faulheit’ at least brought something of a wind band sonority, but for much of the performance, the pleasantness of Anna – whether I or II – had apparently proved contagious. In ‘Habsucht’ and ‘Neid’ there was at last some splendid orchestral playing, the LSO properly given its head, the results redolent of Mahagonny, even if Weill is here perhaps a little too obviously imitating his former self. The encore, ‘Speak low’ was preferable in every respect: everyone seemed more relaxed, and there was a far surer grasp of idiom.

At the beginning of the concert, Danse sacrée et profane had mysteriously replaced the advertised Last Pieces, Debussy as orchestrated by Oliver Knussen. LSO principal, Bryn Lewis, gave a good account of the harp part, though Tilson Thomas alternated between the deliberate and the subdued, especially in the first dance. The second showed its kinship to Ravel, but was perhaps overly moulded by the conductor. Holloway’s 2002 orchestration of En blanc et noir, by contrast, proved a revelation. The opening movement brings a glittering edge, at first not especially Debussyan – though it does not seem that Holloway is trying to be so – but perhaps more school of scintillating Dukas. As time went on, flashes and more than flashes, of Debussyan orchestral sonority manifest themselves: informing, but not controlling. This is certainly no attempt at pastiche. The second movement is, unsurprisingly, darker in hue, though not without metallic, militaristic glitter. A poignant trumpet solo lingers in the memory. Likewise the vivid realisation of the confrontation between Ein’ feste Burg and the Marseillaise: almost Ivesian, but better orchestrated. In the final movement, I fancied that I heard, albeit briefly, creepy shades of Bartók, supplanted by Ravel – and that is praise indeed for any orchestration.

La mer, which concluded the programme, opened promisingly, with a fine sense of ‘emerging’, all sections of the LSO on excellent form. ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ flowed well, apparently on the swift side, but not to its detriment. However, by the time we reached the brass fanfares – included, doubtless to the chagrin of some, though I have no problem with them – doubts had begun to set in. So much was a little, and sometimes more than a little, too brash, and I do not think it was just a matter of the Barbican acoustic. Similarly, the glitter of ‘Jeux de vagues’, at first stimulating, soon seemed a little de trop. La mer was veering dangerously close to mere orchestral showpiece, as would be confirmed by the final movement, in which the conductor had it approximate to a decent film score. Direction was present, throughout, to be sure: there was no meandering. And there were some ravishing woodwind solos. But Debussy is so much more interesting, so much less straightforward, than he sounded here. Let us hope that Tilson Thomas does not resolve to tackle Pelléas.

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