16 Feb 2015

Henri Dutilleux: Correspondances

Henri Dutilleux’s music has its devotees. I am yet to join their ranks, but had no reason to think this was not an admirable performance of his song-cycle Correspondances.

Following its brief, opening Rilke (in translation) setting, ‘Gong’, ‘Danse cosmique’ offered Barbara Hannigan greater dramatic possibilities, well taken. The Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen provided vivid, often pictorial playing. Singer and orchestra proved tender indeed during the treatment of ‘solitude’ in the oddly-chosen extract from a letter from Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn to Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya. Hannigan’s closing repetitions of ‘toujours’ faded away nicely, as did the orchestra. ‘Gong II’ provided something a little more labyrinthine, even perhaps Bergian, although Pli selon pli this certainly is not. The closing ‘De Vincent á Théo’ brought beguiling sonorities and, in Hannigan’s performance, a stunning vocal climax.

Mitsuko Uchida joined the orchestra for Ravel’s G major Concerto. There were a few occasions when I wondered whether the Philharmonia had had enough rehearsal here, lapses in ensemble uncharacteristic for both orchestra and conductor. Otherwise, Salonen proved general cool but not cold, even though a little more freedom at times might not have gone amiss. Uchida’s playing was a model of clarity, energy, an of course grace. It is all too easy to make Mozartian comparisons here, but they did not seem especially relevant; this was Ravel, and sounded like it. Uchida’s second-movement cantilena was beautifully judged, a product of harmonic understanding as much as her melodic voicing itself. Woodwind solos were exquisitely voiced, with just the right degree of general orchestral languor. The scampering energy of the finale was occasionally hampered by a couple more lapses in ensemble, but the ‘sense’ of the music was there, especially in Salonen’s building of tension. Uchida’s choice of encore was inspired: the second of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19, that repeated major third, G-B, making its point of continuity.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges followed the interval. Salonen’s tendency, especially at the start, was towards fleetness of tempo; there was certainly no hint of sentimentality. Indeed, a keen sense of forward motion was maintained throughout the performance. The action took place on a ‘stage’ surrounding the stage proper, a resourceful semi-staging giving all that we really needed, not least thanks to imaginative animation (for instance, the confusion of the clock) and atmospheric lighting. There was great character and chemistry to be experienced between the singers, François Piolino often stealing the show, whether by himself or in his interactions with others. Chloé Briot presented a convincingly boyish Child, never forgetting - nor did the performers as a whole - that this is not really a children’s opera at all, but an opera about that most adult of preoccupations, childhood. Hannigan, when she reappeared, now as the Princess, was very much a woman in a man’s creation of a supposed child’s world. Scenes were very sharply defined as almost self-contained units; Salonen seemed, at least to my ears, to perceive Ravel’s opera almost as a cinematic dream-sequence. Certain figures reminded us of the sound-world of the piano concerto, but there was no mistaking the heady atmosphere of the night.

Mark Berry

Programme and performers:

Henri Dutilleux and Maurice Ravel: Correspondances; Piano Concerto in G major; L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Barbara Hannigan (soprano, Princess);Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano);Chloé Briot (Child); Elodie Méchain: Mother, Chinese Cup, Dragonfly;Andrea Hill: Louis XV Armchair, Shepherd, White Cat, Squirrel; Omo Bello: Shepherdess, Bat, Owl;Sabine Devieilhe: Fire, Nightingale;Jean-Sébastien Bou: Grandfather Clock;François Piolino: Teapot, Arithmetic, Frog; Nicola Courjal: Armchair, Tree.Director: Irina Brown; Movement: Quinny Sacks; Designs: Ruth Sutcliffe; Lighting: Kevin Treacy; Video: Louis Price. Philharmonia Voices (director: Aidan Oliver)/Philharmonia Orchestra /Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 12 February 2015.