23 Feb 2020

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

We began this journey through time in 2003 with Jörg Widmann’s Lied for Orchestra. This is a piece centred on melody - and centred on Schubert. It is a work of profound extremes, with an orchestra that is like a Schubert lieder but without being the accompaniment to it. The tenor of the music is indeed more resonant of Schubert than Widmann’s style normally suggests, and if there is a focus on song in this piece it is generated by the orchestra responding to the intimacy of the instrumentation of a piece like the Octet with instruments characterised by instrumental solos replicating their orchestral voices. But, what is also noticeable is what is not Schubert. The debt to Sibelius - especially that composer’s Seventh Symphony - shines like a floodlight. Even more apparent is Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, especially the final movement. The use of the bassoon suggests all its lugubriousness, but it’s the intensity of the string writing, the swelling violins and dark strings which seem just as searing in that movement’s terrifying climax; a trio of trombones has all the effect of overloaded power, the crushing percussion a hammer blow. The work may travel through styles but it’s musically effective and the London Philharmonic played it superbly.

Wind back a century to 1903 and we were in the world of evocative song and ravishing orchestration - Ravel’s Shéhérazade. This was, in many ways, not an ideal performance but Ravel does not make life particularly easy for any mezzo who attempts to sing the part. Christine Rice lacked a certain precision in her French which was magnified, certainly by this particular orchestra. When Juliette Bausor’s principal flute sounded so impeccably shaped, with a tone exquisitely given to stretch her lines into infinity, Rice’s clipping of phrases and tendency to muzzle the distinctive clarity of what she was singing came across as less than accurate.

But that is not to say that her voice itself is often a beautiful instrument. Its very depth and sheen can often give the impression of conveying mystery, although what we got was principally an illusion of it. That long first song, ‘Asie’, should be a melding of two worlds - one of beauty the other of horror; but listening to Rice’s version I’m not sure I got this. There didn’t seem much of either mystery or solitariness in the line “Mystérieuse et solitaire”, nor the distinction between “des rose et du sang” towards the songs close. The panache of the London Philharmonic’s Spanish-inflected rhythms, its oriental shades of Eastern promise were highly expressive but simply highlighted the struggle many singers experience in this cycle.

There are difficulties in the two shorter songs, though I think Rice managed them slightly better. ‘La flute enchantée’ needs to strike a balance between sorrow and joy and that is largely what we got with Rice able to bring a mellowness and sense of radiance to her voice. ‘L’indifférent’ is complex in that it can take a mezzo outside her comfort zone - some find the characterisation of its androgyny difficult to navigate; others embrace it. Rice leaned towards the latter, but principally because the voice’s darker more masculine tones hinted at her ambiguity.

Slobodeniouk-Dima_Marco-Borggreve.jpg Dima Slobodeniouk. Photo credit: Marco Borggreve.

The concert ended in 1803, as it were, with Beethoven’s Eroica. Despite this symphony being an indisputable masterpiece, it never surprises me how many performances of it hang fire. This, however, was one of the most incendiary I have heard in many, many years. I have yet to mention the conductor of this concert, Dima Slobodeniouk. He is not the most precise conductor I have seen, but what he does do is shape what he conducts with great integrity and vision. The gestures are broad in scope as he sweeps his left hand deep into the orchestra. But what is most impressive is that magical illusion of making what he conducts seem much faster than it actually is. The Allegro con brio of this Eroica sounded quite measured but the sheer electricity generated was absolutely thrilling. There was no broadness in those opening chords, so I suppose one might have expected a certain fleetness - but it wasn’t immediately apparent we would get it.

The Marcia Funebre, on the other hand, seemed to work in the opposite direction. This was fast, and there was never any sense it was otherwise. Perhaps the F minor Fugue didn’t quite have sufficient power for my taste, but Slobodeniouk managed to pull some depth from the LPO’s cellos and basses which did at least suggest gravity and that plunge into the turbulent and ferocious development was a thrilling cataclysm of despair. I think one might have preferred divided violins and a different layout of lower strings, but we had what we had.

The brilliance of this performance’s Scherzo was entirely down to the lightness of touch from the orchestra, something which was carried through to the Allegro molto - its storms, fugues, sforzandos and wildly fluctuating dynamics articulated with uncompromising brilliance. A revelatory performance, and one which bookended an often fascinating concert.

Marc Bridle

Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano), Dima Slobodeniouk (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; Saturday 22nd February 2020.