Friday 3 September 2010

Prom 63: BBC NOW/Roth - Rameau, Canteloube, Martin Matalon, and Mussorgsky (arr. Wood)

Royal Albert Hall

Rameau – Dardanus: suite
Canteloube – Selection from Chants d’Auvergne
Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (United Kingdom premiere)
Mussorgsky, arr. Sir Henry Wood – Pictures at an Exhibition

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

A particular pleasure of this year’s Proms has been to hear so many British ‘regional’ orchestras on such good form, above all the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It is not that one doubts their prowess but, quite understandably, one does not often hear them perform in London, a capital city spoilt by an embarrassment of international riches. For whatever reason, the biggest international names have not been so conspicuous at the Proms this year, though the Berlin Philharmonic will shortly give a couple of concerts, both of which I shall be reviewing; at any rate, other orchestras have arguably become more prominent. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales acquitted itself well enough, if not so startlingly as the RLPO or the CBSO had, but what stood out most about this concert was its unusual programme. I found it difficult ultimately to discern a thread running through it: surely Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition would have been the more obvious companion piece to what one might consider to be two-and-a-half French works, Martin Matalon being Argentinian but having lived in Paris since 1993 and listing French composers (Messiaen, Boulez, Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey) as his greatest inspirations. What we did have, however, was considerable opportunity to hear works we might otherwise have to travel some way to hear. Even Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne seem to be heard less frequently than was once the case.

A particular joy was to hear a suite drawn from Rameau’s Dardanus. Braving the authenticity police, whose fatwas have a tendency to make Iranian mullahs resemble woolly-minded liberals, not only did François-Xavier Roth perform Rameau’s dances on modern instruments; he used a fair-sized orchestra and resisted any pressure to make the players of the BBC NOW sound as if they were squeezing toothpaste. What emerged was a sequence of dances that was colourful, but on Rameau’s terms, for this was no Stokowskian vision, and highly rhythmical, though never hard-driven. The Overture, its dotted rhythms telling without exaggeration, was followed by the ‘Entrée des guerriers’ from the first act, a brace of delightful Tambourins from the third, the second act’s affecting ‘Air grave’ in which Isménor brings about a solar eclipse, the third act’s ‘Air en rondeau’, and finally the (relatively) celebrated Chaconne, which, like its predecessors, veritably danced. Given the towering Bachian example, one can readily forget that a chaconne is not necessarily a thing of great weight and import; came grace and pointed rhythms were to the fore. (Mozart, in Idomeneo’s ballet music, managed to combine both aspects – but then, he was Mozart.) Woodwind, contrabassoon and all (a very early usage or Roth’s emendation?) were characterful, convincingly French in their individual and collective timbres. And was this a first? Roth conducted from the drum.

Seven Songs from the Auvergne followed: the ‘Pastourelle’, the bourrées, ‘N’ai pas iéu de mio’ and ‘Lo Calhé’, ‘Une jionto pastouro’, ‘Té, l’co té!’, ‘Baïlèro’, and ‘Malurous qu’o uno fenno’. Roth’s guiding hand brought out the best from the orchestra, whose string sound was often ravishing, with solos – woodwind, violin, and piano in particular – very well taken. Anna Caterina Antonacci brought a touch of glamour to proceedings, which is no bad thing: Canteloube’s settings are hardly earthy. Antonacci’s command of line and depth of tone shone out, even in the Royal Albert Hall. Though they were once much loved, I cannot say that I find the orchestrations (1923-55) especially revealing, or even appropriate; Puccini comes to mind a little too often and this is certainly not Bartók. There is no harm, though, in the occasional outing; Baïlèro worked its rural, if slightly protracted, magic.

Martin Matalon’s 2007 Lignes de fuite (‘Lines of convergence’, in the sense of drawing) received its first British performance. Over a little more than a quarter of an hour, Matalon showed his command of orchestral writing, especially when it came to percussion. Beyond assured technique, however, I was not sure that I discerned a beating heart. This may, of course, be entirely my fault, but a succession of events, generally accompanied by glittering piano, celesta, and harp, appeared as a foil for what sounded like surprisingly conventional, yet meandering harmonic progression. It was a bit like hearing a substantially toned down version of Messiaenised excerpts from The Rite of Spring – albeit without the sharpness of rhythm.

The final work on the programme was Sir Henry Wood’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. This is a curiosity indeed: at times, bang on the money, with something reasonably close to an authentic Mussorgskian – at any rate, decidedly un-Gallic – voice, yet at other times wildly missing the mark, perhaps above all in the bizarre vulgarisation, pounding organ chords representing but one of the mildest symptoms, of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ (here ‘The Bogatyr Gate at Kiev’). I do not know whether Roth was following Wood, or introducing his own articulation into the opening Promenade (the other Promenades are cut). Whichever way, the phrasing was short-breathed, mannered in a strangely ‘authenticke’ way that had not characterised the Rameau performances at all. For the most part, however, the BBC NOW’s performance impressed with its fleetness of response. ‘Limoges’ bustled and the catacombs were darkly fearsome. Ravel is a master orchestrator, of course, yet I have always felt that his version misses Mussorgsky’s point; the piano ‘original’ is vastly preferable to all. Of the other orchestrations I have heard, Stokowski’s seems most assured – though there are omissions – but if the Proms cannot honour Sir Henry Wood, then who can?