Friday 22 August 2014

Prom 46: WEDO/Barenboim - Mozart, Adler, Rouston, and Ravel, 20 August 2014

Royal Albert Hall

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro, KV 492: Overture
Ayal Adler – Resonating Sounds (UK premiere)
Kareem Rouston – Ramal (UK premiere)
Ravel – Rapsodie espagnole
Alborada del gracioso
Pavane pour une infante défunte

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Images: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The times could hardly be more tense with respect to ‘external’ politics and the lands in which the young musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra live. Who knows what discussions take place amongst them? However, they certainly played – and looked as though they were playing – together not only as an orchestra but as friends; the warmth of their embraces at the end of the concert told its own story. This year, we had not Beethoven and Boulez, but music with Spanish associations (the Figaro Overture and Ravel), alongside the British premieres by an Israeli and a Syrian composer.

Daniel Barenboim is of course one of our very greatest Mozartians. I could find no fault with the Overture, nor had I any wish to do so. It simply sounded as Mozart should: perfect. Quicksilver, without being harried, sunny without complacency, this reading showed once again Barenboim’s crucial attention to the bass line, thus to harmony, thus to form. (I still find it extraordinary how many conductors seem entirely uninterested in such matters, as if they were somehow optional extras!) The Divan players articulated Mozart’s magic beautifully as Barenboim attended, inobtrusively, to the longer line.

Ayal Adler’s Resonating Sounds refers, in the composer’s words, ‘to an echo, or a reminiscence of sound, lingering after the cast chords slowly fade away. This sonic image opens the work as the whole orchestra plays an immense cluster, followed by a delicate string section of transparent melodic fragments in a high register.’ That is certainly what we heard at the beginning, from a considerably enlarged orchestra. Now it was time for the WEDO to display precision of a somewhat different kind, but also orchestral fantasy. Although the opening is generally led by strings, other instruments join, with a considerable role for percussion, both tuned (including piano) and untuned. Trombone slides make there presence felt, alongside a barrage of other colouristic effects, often, in Adler’s words, ‘merging and melting into one another’.

Kareem Rouston’s Ramal, also first performed this year, takes its name from one of the sixteen (pre-Islamic) metres used in classical Arabic poetry, each of which, according to the composer’s helpful explanation, is made up of ‘multiple variations of the verb fa’al, which means “to do”’. The variation of the ramal metre used in this work translates into the musical metre 8/8 – 7/8 – 5/8 – 7/8, thus providing a structural framework, added to (by rests) and later contracting (taking away those rests). Ramal has a very different opening from Adler’s work: furiously rhythmical (as one might expect from the foregoing), though quickly subsiding – or not really, since tension is maintained throughout. The metrical play has at times an almost post-Stravinskian effect. Again, there is a keen sense of fantasy, whether in fast or slow sections. ‘Although the work is not programmatic in its design,’ Rouston writes, ‘its emotional drive and changing metres reflect the unsettled state of the world, specifically the devastating current situation in Syria’. A keen sense of that came across from work and performance.

For the second half, we moved to Ravel. Rapsodies espagnole opened with a fine sense of atmosphere, enabled by Barenboim’s balancing of his musicians. Spacious, pregnant, the ‘Prélude à la nuit’ had its colours and harmonies tell without indulgence. The ‘Malagueña’ was precise, yet one could feel the heat, whether at climaxes or in sultry languor. The ‘Habanera’ was nicely dreamlike, yet again retained necessary precision; this was certainly not to be mistaken for Debussy. In a vivid ‘Feria’, one could almost see, feel, breathe the celebrations. Alborada del gracioso combined urgency and grace. Perhaps its opening was a little brash compared with, say, Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, but the comparison is doubtless unfair. In any case, there was plenty of magically pp playing to draw one in. Ravel as modernist was apparent throughout, not least in the hints, perhaps more, of La Valse-like desolation in the central section. Pavane pour une infante défunte received a relatively fleet reading, though not unreasonably so: such is unquestionably preferable to making a meal out of it. Occasionally I wondered if it were a little too restrained, but again that is preferable to erring in the opposing direction. Barenboim let his players do the work for much of Boléro, confident in their abilities so as to leave them un- or barely conducted. Clockwork precision remained, the tension added to in a good way. It was inexorable and, yes, hypnotic; there was at least the illusion of orchestra with music.

Barenboim sitting out the final Carmen encore 
As I suspected, partly because I had heard an all-Ravel second half to a concert Barenboim gave in Berlin a couple of years ago, Carmen provided four short encores, the last of them again without conductor. The passion and character had one wishing to hear more – and we did, but from something else: an Argentinian tango (for woodwind, brass, and percussion), learned from the orchestra’s recent visit to Barenboim’s country of birth. The concert was, of course, broadcast live by BBC Radio 3; ‘highlights’ –an insult born of the BBC’s decision to excise new music from television broadcasts – will be seen on BBC Four on Friday 29 August at 7.30 p.m, the works by Adler and Rouston thus being available only on iPlayer.