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Reviews

06 Mar 2019

Marianne Crebassa sings Berio and Ravel: Philharmonia Orchestra with Salonen

It was once said of Cathy Berberian, the muse for whom Luciano Berio wrote his Folk Songs, that her voice had such range she could sing the roles of both Tristan and Isolde. Much less flatteringly, was my music teacher’s description of her sound as akin to a “chisel being scraped over sandpaper”.

Philharmonia Orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Marianne Crebassa

Photo credit: Thomas Bartel

 

What cannot be denied is that she brought an extraordinary, and riveting, ability to communicate through her voice - to project drama in a very compelling way; audiences were fascinated by her artistry and virtuosity. It was this which the mezzo-soprano, Marianne Crebassa brought in spades to her performances of the Berio - and, later, Ravel - in this magnificent concert.

Crebassa does lack the range - and certainly the roughness - of Berberian but they share a commonality of expression for Berio’s Folk Songs and it would be hard to imagine a more theatrical outing of them than the one we got here. Berio originally composed the songs in 1964 for voice, flute, clarinet, harp, viola, cello and percussion - but orchestrated them nine years later, though the scale of the instrumentation (although for a large orchestra) remains unconventionally intimate. They can sound a little conservative, even harmonically unchallenging for Berio - but vocally they are complex and difficult, even though idiomatically the folk genre is a fairly narrow one for the singer. That challenge is magnified by the multiple languages in which the songs are written, often in native dialects from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Sicily, Northern Italy and Sardinia. Berio’s sources - from sheet music, records and oral recollections, or, in the case of the final song, a transcription by Berberian herself done not knowing the language at all (and marked as “untranslatable” on the surtitles) simply convey and reinforce the typical traits of the cultural frame from which the songs originate - traits which are very often disguised or sublimated.

Crebassa was completely absorbing throughout the twenty or so minutes these eleven songs played for. Whether it was from the two opening American songs - by John Jacob Niles - in which Crebassa brought a kind of Kentucky, whisky- soaked swell to her voice or ‘Rossignolet du bois’ where a nightingale serenades a lover (the sound of the nightingale was later to feature in the closing work on this programme, Pines of Rome, though no one was entirely sure if it did) the voice was inflected with colour and drama throughout. Humour abounded too; the allusion to apples and testicles was wittily done, and clearly not something which passed over the heads of this audience. Songs about fishermen’s wives waiting at the dockside, men and marriage - Crebassa sung them with laughs in mind (and they were duly given in response). These songs rarely seem to be characterized by a depth of expression - but the aphorisms they express seem somewhat timeless, nevertheless. “Ballo” may start each of its two stanzas with frivolity, but Crebassa brought the wisdom of Cassandra to her prophetic announcement that the wisest of men lose their heads over love, and still more love resists the sun and ice and everything else. Likewise, in Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne there is the paradox that men who have no wives wish they had one, and those who have one wish they didn’t. It was delivered magnificently. That final song, which Berberian had transcribed, in some ways seems the most difficult - the language almost a little nonsensical. It barely seems to be sung with punctuation marks at all - but Crebassa’s breath control was extraordinary. Lines like ‘syora die limtchésti snova, papalm’ came across as poetic but, yes, entirely meaningless.

From Berio, Crebassa took us back sixty years after the interval to Ravel’s Shéhérazade - a leap in both orchestral style, and vocal excellence for this mezzo. It has been a very long time since I have heard such an evocative, beautifully sung performance of this cycle - but also one which came so close to the evocative, sweeping contours of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. I think she benefitted from having the Philharmonia Orchestra - an ensemble so steeped in playing French music - something that dates back to their history of playing this music with conductors like Karajan, Cantelli and Giulini - and, most recently, Sinopoli. That gorgeous warmth of string tone, the languorous - almost exotically - phrased woodwind, the expressive, but beautifully crafted tonal blend of brass like a golden shimmer, are hallmarks of this orchestra’s French playing - and it was amply on display here under Salonen.

This wasn’t just a faultless performance by Crebassa - it was one which drew you in from the first note of the opening ‘Asie’ to the very closing bars of ‘L’indifférent’. The voice could be bittersweet, beguiling, swept up by an hypnotic charm. ‘Asie’ was never over-voluptuous - just expressive and sung with a lyricism that felt as sensual as it did erotic. Crebassa’s gift in ‘Asie’ was to follow the Philharmonia’s intensity and warmth - and not to try and define her own level of it. This was a performance that felt entirely symbiotic, almost as if she was an instrument coming from within the orchestra.

The two shorter songs, which close the cycle, each bring their own difficulties for a mezzo - but Crebassa was beyond reproach here. The balance she achieved between sorrow and joy in ‘La flûte enchantée’ was made distinctly different, but it was her slight androgyny in the final song which seemed most brilliantly characterized of all. Deftly done, it’s either rarely attempted at all - or the ambiguity seems misplaced. Perhaps there is more of Berberian in Crebassa than one might have assumed after all.

EPSalonen Minna Hatinen.jpgEsa-Pekka Salonen. Photo credit: Minna Hatinen.

The Philharmonia’s concert had opened with Debussy’s Ibéria from Images. Again, this is repertoire that the orchestra has long played very well - and this performance was extraordinarily evocative. Although the work sounds undeniably Spanish in character - in its use of castanets and violins strumming pizzicato as if they’re guitars, for example - it’s almost written ‘blind’ in the sense that Debussy never actually visited Spain having derived much of his inspiration for the piece from Parisian street life. Nevertheless, it absorbs a Spanish soundscape, a harmonic foreground in its structure and distinctive melodies that sounds distinctively persuasive. Salonen ensured the dances felt fleet, and the phrasing was bristling with energy.

Donatoni’s ESA (In cauda V), a work which Salonen had commissioned for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a piece that almost never happened. Donatoni died very soon after Salonen commissioned the piece - and he assumed he would never receive work, but he did, the composer having dictated from his death-bed the score to some of his students. Salonen in part compares the genesis of the work to Mozart’s Requiem - though Salonen describes ESA as being completely different in mood to Mozart’s piece. In fact, as Salonen mentioned during a brief introduction before the performance how ESA owes more to Bach, including in its use of fugues, and how the music just dies away at the end into a descent into complete silence. This is music that can sometimes sound undeniably brittle, almost constantly in a state of collapse; but it is also vividly orchestrated, even a touch witty at times. I’m not sure in the end I agree with Salonen’s assessment that the work isn’t valedictory - I found it to inhabit a somewhat dark, almost tenebrous world with large opaque chords - albeit ones that are sometimes contrasted with moments that scale back from this. But that sense of the work descending into nothingness, an almost chilling bone-shredding chordal theme dying out on a harpsichord felt like a very final, incomplete moment to me. Either way, the performance given by Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra was highly virtuosic, often jaw-droppingly precise and ultimately highly persuasive.

This concert ended with Respighi’s Pines of Rome - and it was quite the way to end it. In a sense this was clever programming, because it kind of tied together some of the themes and ideas which had been heard in some of the music elsewhere in the concert. The fugal, tenebrous sound world of Donatoni gets a look in in the starkly, chant-like world of the ‘Pines near the Catacomb’, whilst the nightingales of the Berio songs are replicated above the astonishing power of Respighi’s Roman army marching into the city through ‘The Pines of the Appian Way’ (though, as I mentioned earlier, they were either inaudible - or missed out completely). There are, it should be said, few things so thrilling in a live concert as the final movement of this work - and the Philharmonia and Salonen were stunning. It wasn’t just the stereophonic placing of brass to the sides of the hall, and high up in the royal box, nor the tremendous timpani, nor even the fact you could actually hear the triangle, it was the pacing that Salonen brought to this. There’s something to be said for the sheer excitement of a faster, more dramatic way to play this music (which Salonen did) - though I have also heard Svetlanov take a much longer amount of time to get through this music when the effect sounded so tense it was almost unbearable. Either way works. The standing ovation, hardly a surprise, was entirely justified.

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 and can be heard on iPlayer until 27th March 2019. I thoroughly recommend it!

Marc Bridle

Marianne Crebassa (mezzo-soprano), Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra

Royal Festival Hall, London; 28th February 2019.

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