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Reviews

Prom 43: Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
18 Aug 2017

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Prom 43: Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d'Oustrac performs Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo

Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou

 

But, the ‘Spain’ of Debussy’s Iberia or Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and L'Heure espagnole was essentially an ‘exoticised’ musical land. Ravel’s mother may have been of Basque origin but Debussy’s experience of the country amounted to a brief day-trip to San Sebastian, although this didn’t stop Spanish composer Manuel de Falla remarking of Debussy’s piano work La Soirée dans Grenade, ‘There is not even one measure of this music borrowed from thee Spanish folklore, and yet the entire composition in its most minute details, conveys admirably Spain’.

De Falla moved to Paris in 1907 where he was welcomed and supported by Ravel, Debussy (with whom he had previously corresponded) and Dukas, and the music that he composed during his Parisian sojourn - such as thePièces Espagnoles for piano solo and the concerto, Noches en los jardines de España - reveals the influence of the Impressionist composers with whom he associated. But the outbreak of war in 1914 forced Falla to return to Spain where he attempted to establish himself as a composer in his native land, his music blending the modernist influences that he had absorbed during his travels in northern Europe with authentic Spanish idioms.

In his one-act ballet with chorus, El amor brujo (usually translated as ‘Love, the Magician’, though brujo literally means ‘male witch’, suggesting more demonic forces) Falla strived to combine art music with genuine gypsy song and dance, but though the composer conceived the work as a gitanería and it was written for Pastora Rojas Monje - the daughter of the famous flamenco dancer Rosario la Mejorana - when the work was premiered in 1915, contemporary critics complained that the music was too ‘French’.

The ballet scenario by Gregorio Martínez Sierra was based upon an Andalusian folktale in which a beautiful gypsy girl, Candelas, is haunted by her dead lover - a wicked, jealous reprobate whom she nevertheless both still loves with a morbid intensity and fears may return, a fierce spectre demanding her devotion. When she is courted by the gallant Carmelo, Candelas is unable to cast off her obsession with the past. Carmelo coaxes pretty Lucia to help him set a trap for the ghost and Carmelo and Candelas are able to exchange the ‘perfect kiss’: their love defeats the evils of the past.

Falla subsequently revised the ballet in the form of an orchestral suite in which four of the twelve movements present songs in which Candelas sings of her heartbreak, of her dead lover’s hypnotic unearthly power and, finally, of her release from the spell by Carmelo’s kiss. And, it was this orchestral suite which opened this Franco-Hispanic Prom presented by Charles Dutoit and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

For all its pictorial realism and folk authenticity, El amor brujo is also notable for its beautifully detailed orchestration and this was a performance that was more refined than sensuous, as Dutoit focused on instrumental detail and variety of colour at the expense of the score’s earthy vitality and rhythmic fickleness. The Hispanic inflections were somewhat watered down - the woodwind’s flamenco flourishes in the opening bars might have had more kick and éclat for example - and the tempi sometimes felt sluggish, the ostinato rhythms too inflexible and mechanical. The ‘spells’ of ‘Midnight’ (‘A medianoche’) were more stately than sorcerous, heralding a ‘refined’ ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ which sizzled rather than scorched: such elegance and polish would not have frightened the horses, let alone driven out the evil spirits.

But, if Dutoit wasn’t the most transfixing story-teller he proved a vivid scene painter in the score’s descriptive passages. The opening cave scene was appropriately dark and murky, tinged with the menacing crescendos of the tremolando strings and the oboe’s eerie cries against the twinkling of the harp. In ‘El aparecido’ (The ghost), the harp glissandi wailed like a banshee, initiating a lurching ‘Dance of terror’ in which the snatching woodwind and sharply plucking strings taunted each other like whirling spirits. There was some lovely tender string playing in ‘El círculo mágico’ (The magic circle) and the tunefulness of ‘Pantomima’ (Pantomime) was beguiling, though the folk inflections of the latter were muted.

Mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac made a strong impression last year at Glyndebourne, in Laurent Pelly’s Béatrice and Bénédict but her voice is quite light-weight and in this much larger auditorium she struggled to project the love-crazed gypsy’s songs of obsession and bewitchment. She was also rather too score-bound; a little more eye-contact would have helped but, at least from where I was sitting in the Hall, the text seemed to disappear into the score which she held in front of her. In the ‘Canción del amor dolido’ (Song of the broken heart), D’Oustrac attempted some gitanesque mannerisms - ‘deforming’ some of the syllables, fiercely rolling the ‘r’s, reaching for occasional guttural hardness - but her chest voice isn’t sufficiently dark and sultry to make such gestures feel entirely true. The opening ‘ay!’ needed more raw emotion, the melismas more vibrancy and the phrases more colour modulation, to convey the mourning girl’s rapid fluctuations from sadness to anger, through anxiety to bitterness, and finally from delirium to madness.

D’Oustrac fared better in the ‘Canción del fuego fatuo’ (Song of the Will-o’-the-Wisp) as the sparser orchestral texture allowed her to imbue the melody with a gentler warmth which contrasted effectively with the fiercely enunciated snarls. But, her characterisation wasn’t helped by Dutoit, as the ‘Danza del juego de amor’ (Dance of the Game of Love) lacked an erotic pulse and the ‘bells of dawn’ rang without lustre.

Violinist Joshua Bell performs Édouard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole,.jpg Joshua Bell plays Symphonie espagnole. Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou.

If passion and intensity were missing from El amor brujo then Joshua Bell more than compensated in a performance of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole - a concerto too seldom performed - which was punchy, grandiose, impish and silkily lyrical, by turn. As he chased Lalo’s melodies up the violin’s G-string, Bell’s sound was never gritty, always soft-edged though well-defined, and beautifully nuanced with judicious portamento, vibrato and rubato. Similarly, the stratospheric passages shone crystalline and pure. The second movement’s seguidilla sparkled and together with the habanera bestowed the scents and sultriness of Iberia that were absent from the preceding Falla suite. The fiendish Rondo flew by with stunning nimbleness but it was the exquisite melodism of the close of the Intermezzo which really took one’s breath away. Massenet’s ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs kept happy those punters eager for further opportunity to relish Bell’s beautiful tone, but I couldn’t help thinking that the high spirits of a dance miniature by Falla or Sarasate - to whom Lalo’s concerto was dedicated - might have stirred the passions more.

Organist Cameron Carpenter joined Dutoit and the RPO for a fittingly thunderous rendition of Saint-Saën’s Third Symphony (the ‘Organ’ Symphony). As in the Lalo, Dutoit drew disciplined, expressive playing from his instrumentalists - the richness of the brass was particularly eloquent - and the structure was underpinned by persuasive rhythmic and temporal fluency. Saint-Saëns’ symphony was commissioned by the Philharmonic Society and first performed in 1886. It was thus a fitting conclusion to a concert during which Dutoit - the RPO’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, who made his debut at the Proms 36 years ago in 1981 - was presented with a Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal by John Gilhooly, the Chairman of the RPS, thus becoming the 103rd recipient of the illustrious award.

Claire Seymour

BBC Prom 43: Manuel de Falla - El amor brujo; Édouard Lalo - Symphonie espagnole Op.21; Camille Saint‐Saëns - Symphony No.3 in C minor (Organ)

Stéphanie d’Oustrac (mezzo-soprano), Joshua Bell (violin), Cameron Carpenter (organ), Charles Dutoit (conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Thursday 17th August 2017.

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