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Performances

29 Apr 2019

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Ravel: L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: François-Xavier Roth

Photo credit: Doug Peters

 

The work which you might have expected to end the program, Boléro, one of the great orchestral showpieces, didn’t come at the final stretch which may in the end have been just as well; this was a performance which didn’t really do much for me, not that it stopped most of the audience thinking otherwise.

L’heure espagnole - as its title suggests - runs close to an hour in length, though at times Roth seemed close to edging it faster. This is Ravel at his most imaginative, the composer astonishingly vivid in his scoring - in one sense this is an opera that literally vibrates, ticks and tocks, clicks with the pulse of swaying metronomes - quite literally, in fact - and has the rhythm of mechanics running through it. It predates Varèse by decades - and who would turn to science, mechanics and the influence of key thinkers like da Vinci in his aural landscapes - but Ravel’s opera is every bit as inventive, if necessarily more primitive in its thinking.

Ravel described L’heure espagnole as an opéra-bouffe - and the best performances of it draw on high comedy and emphasise the sense of ordinariness of the characters. This may be less obviously easy to do in a concert performance as we had here - but it worked because the cast largely achieved that by entering and leaving at the wings of the stage rather as the libretto demanded. It certainly helped that they weren’t just sat there doing nothing (which would have been a travesty for the role of Torquemada, who is supposed to be out for the ‘hour’ winding the town’s clocks, while his wife, Concepción juggles - without much success - between her clumsy lovers).

In every sense this is an opera about time and timing - the muleteer Ramiro stops by to have his watch fixed, Torquemada has to tend to the town’s clocks (so Ramiro has to wait), Concepción doesn’t even have a clock in her bedroom but wants one there, Gonzalve, a poet more interested in his love for words rather the love of another kind, and is eventually stuffed into a clock he can’t get out of, and the banker Don Iñigo hidden in another clock, are metaphors within a comedy. It requires a better than average cast to bring all this off, especially when they’re largely confined on a stage in front of a conductor. To their credit, the five singers did a very notable job of doing just that.

It helped that the surtitles were very funnily translated - and they were even a touch double-edged in their meaning. It was just as well we had surtitles because I found some of the French being sung extraordinarily difficult to follow, even to the extent I sometimes wondered at times what language I was hearing; I’ve rarely heard this opera sound quite that vocally mangled. But never mind. The comedy ended up being beautifully timed. The acting, although it could have been limited by space, was not just considered, it was a joy to watch and very expressive, comic without feeling forced - soaking up every ounce of farce like a sponge from a libretto that sometimes challenges its singers to do so.

Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Torquemada rather left no doubt as to why Isabelle Druet’s Concepción might seek amour elsewhere - but how perfect they were as an imperfect coupling. If Fouchécourt engaged with the female violinists of the LSO, in flirtatious exits and entrances, more than he ever did with his wife, Druet’s Concepción left no doubt why the dynamics of this relationship were always in disarrangement. On the one hand, you had the small, but always superbly well-crafted tenor of Fouchécourt, set beside the powerful, sleekly engineered grandeur of Druet’s soprano. It was perhaps a little more lyrical than one might expect - but it worked like clockwork. An ideal couple who revelled in the comedy of being singularly unideal.

Thomas Dolié’s Ramiro was undeniably strapping - a singer who has the kind of rip-roaring baritone that easily strides over an orchestra. But he clearly understood the role as well bringing a silky pathos when needed and an all-knowing understanding to the sexual double-dealing of Concepción. Gonzalve can sometimes seem difficult to cast - it needs a singer who somehow needs to inhabit two rather indistinct worlds. Edgaras Montvidas effortlessly sang the role with much expression, but he was also able to define the poet who rather seems aloof from reality. His tenor was probably the most shining voice of the evening, the one which came closest to mirroring the precision and beauty that came from the orchestra. In Nicholas Cavallier’s Gomez - the grey-haired banker - one related to his ego, and his failures.

Roth’s conducting - as it had been in the first half of the concert - often seemed on the brisk side, but this was also a beautifully proportioned, often mesmerising performance, exquisitely played, by an LSO that didn’t always seem comfortable in this idiomatic music. Indeed, I had found the opening Rapsodie espagnole - a work which in the wrong hands can often outstay its welcome - come tenuously close to drifting off completely. Roth seemed so intent on contrasting the slow and fast sections of this score that I felt I was on a helter-skelter. The opening prelude took a while to get going - and one never really felt that those languorous passages Ravel went to great effort to highlight shadows and time in the music did anything other than linger. On the other hand, there was a Feria which felt fiery - but it came just a little too late. Boléro, too, didn’t really wow me as some other performances have done. There are some conductors who feel they need to conduct this work, and those who feel the work can just play itself - Roth falls into the first category. Brushing aside the distinctly un-French sound of the LSO, especially in the woodwind here (and which actually didn’t at all seem noticeable during L’heure espagnole), and some uncommonly lazy playing, this was a performance which tended to run on the fast side. Roth knows how to ratchet up the tension and suspense in Boléro - this performance felt like a screw tightening - and the climax felt colossal. But if you were looking for something that strived towards the oriental, or that looked into the deeper mechanical workings of a score where each player seems to play like a welder hammering metal, or a mason carving stone this performance wasn’t it.

Earlier in the evening I had caught a short concert of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major. Given by the Marmen Quartet - as part of the Guildhall Artists series - this was a performance which didn’t necessarily seek enormous depth in a work which looks to Debussy’s Quartet for its inspiration. There was no lack of precision here, nor an unwillingness to highlight the shadowy writing that separates the upper and lower instruments; contrast was a hallmark throughout. There was an impressive sense of taking the music in a single arc during movements, even when the time signature changes - as in the Vif et agité. If a single player grabbed my attention it was the cellist, Steffan Morris. His tone is deep, beguilingly rich - even sumptuous. He added weight to a performance which sometimes seemed to spurn it.

This concert will be broadcast on BBC iPlayer on 30th April and will be available for 30 days.

Marc Bridle

London Symphony Orchestra - François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

Isabelle Druet (soprano), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor), Thomas Dolié (baritone), Edgaras Montvidas (tenor), Nicolas Cavallier (bass-baritone)

Marmen Quartet - Johannes Marmen (violin), Ricky Gore (violin), Bryony Gibson-Gore (viola), Steffan Morris (cello)

Barbican Hall, London; 25th April 2019.

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