Thursday, 18 December 2008

Orchestre de Paris/Salonen - Richard Dubugnon and Mahler, 17 December 2008

Salle Pleyel, Paris

Richard Dubugnon – Violin Concerto (world premiere)
Mahler – Das klagende Lied (original version, 1880)

Janine Jansen (violin)

Melanie Diener (soprano)
Lilli Passikivi (viola)
Jon Villars (tenor)
Sergei Leiferkus (bass)
Members of the Tölzer Knabenchor (choirmaster: Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden)

Chœur de l’Orchestre de Paris (chorus-masters: Didier Bouture and Geoffroy Jourdain)
Orchestre de Paris
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon’s new work was commissioned by Musique Nouvelle en Liberté and the city of Paris. It is dedicated to Janine Jansen and Esa-Pekka Salonen, who gave its world premiere at the Salle Pleyel. In his programme note, Dubugnon said that he had tried to reconcile the form and duration of the Romantic concerto with images, sounds, and colours from today, including some rhythms and harmonies taken from popular music: new wine into old bottles. The problem I had with much of this lengthy three-movement concerto – about three-quarters of an hour in total – concerned the wine itself. Frankly tonal, its harmonies were not only of the twentieth century, but of its earliest years. Various composers came to mind, including, in relatively conventional voice, Debussy, Bartók, and Scriabin, and, more interestingly in the slow movement, early Messiaen, but seemingly lacking an individual, let alone contemporary voice. As for the popular influences – ‘house’ and ‘funk’, according to the composer – these did not seem to go beyond odd rhythms, often repeated or recurring, rhythms which might equally well have had their origins in early or even ‘symphonic’ jazz. A few passages sounded as if they might have strayed in from a ‘Hooked on Classics’ sequence. The overall form was admirably clear; the old bottle did not leak. Nor, I think, would it have done, even if we had languished without Dubugnon’s comprehensive programme note. This is clearly a composer who can orchestrate, in an almost classically ‘French’ fashion, although Debussy or Ravel would never have relied so much upon stock combinatory effects. There was perhaps greater individuality in some of the writing for tuned percussion, although little that progressed so far as, still less beyond, Messiaen.

Salonen kept a tight grip upon proceedings and Jansen displayed great virtuosity and sensitivity. As a vehicle for her talents, the concerto worked well enough, some of the solo writing perhaps echoing that of Prokofiev, but I could not help thinking that there might have been better ways to show off her technique. One thing this definitely goes to show, however, is what nonsense are the malcontent attempts one sometimes hears to portray Pierre Boulez as some kind of dictator of French musical life. I think I can safely say that Boulez would never have been interested in such a work; its co-commissioning by the city of Paris itself signals a thoroughgoing musical pluralism.

It is not clear to me why Mahler’s Das klagende Lied was thought an appropriate companion-piece, or vice versa for that matter. For those who might have responded with greater enthusiasm to the violin concerto, it is difficult to imagine that they would have made many connections with Mahler’s first principal completed work, steeped in German Romanticism, yet also looking forward to his later symphonies, especially the First and Second, and even to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. Never mind; it was a relatively rare opportunity to hear Das klagende Lied, here given in its original, 1880 version, as submitted for the 1881 Beethoven Prize. There were good things to the performance, yet, as a whole, I did not feel that it quite came together, almost as if this were a rehearsal rather than the ‘real thing’. Barring a few too many lapses of ensemble, especially in some of the offstage music, the Orchestre de Paris played well enough. I did not find the orchestra’s sound especially Mahlerian; the strings and indeed many of the other instruments came across a little too brightly for that. Nor was there especial depth to the bass, although this may have been at least partly a result of the Salle Pleyel’s notoriously difficult acoustic. There were, however, some splendid orchestral moments, not least the ominous kettledrum role at the very opening of Waldmärchen and the solos of leader, Philippe Aïche. The rumbustiousness of the public scenes in the final Hochzeitsstück was ably conveyed too; Tannhäuser’s arrival of the guests and indeed Hagen’s call to the Gibichungs were not so very distant. Salonen guided the work’s progress with considerable care for clarity in the orchestral textures, yet I was rarely gripped by an inexorable narrative as I had hoped to be. Lengthy pauses between movements did not help in that regard, yet even those three movements themselves came across as a little diffuse at times.

The soloists, impressive on paper, proved a mixed bunch in practice. Melanie Diener has an attractive voice but the quality of her diction varied enormously. Jon Villars came in and out of focus with disturbing frequency; there were some splendid Heldentenor-ish passages, whilst others sounded tentative and muffled. Sergei Leiferkus’s best days would, on this evidence, appear very much to be behind him. But Lilli Passikivi impressed as a true contralto, especially in her eery, Erda-like passages from Waldmärchen. Whilst far from flawless, the two boy soloists from the Tölz Boys’ Choir – anonymous, but this tends to be the practice – exhibited most movingly the extraordinary treble tone we know and love. That ghostly quality which Mahler demands for the murdered knight’s accusation was thereby chillingly conveyed. The choral singing was varied too, again moving in and out of focus, although this was less of a problem in the Götterdämmerung-like passages from the Hochzeitsstück. Again, I wonder how much of that resulted from the acoustic. I also wonder whether a second performance the following evening might have melded the parts into a more satisfying whole.