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Tuesday 30 April 2013

Two BBCSO concerts: Ravel, Poulenc, Martinu, Lindberg

Poulenc Les animaux modèles (suite with readings)
Ravel L’enfant et les sortilèges
BBCSO with Royal Academy of Music Students and Stephen Mangan, conducted by Stéphane Denève

Martinu Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra
Lindberg Clarinet Concerto
BBCSO with Apollon Musagete Quartet and Mark Simpson, conducted by Baldur Brönnimann

I wasn't going to review either of these concerts but a train of thought that linked them was swirling around in my mind so I thought I'd exorcise it by setting some ideas down. The first concert I went to primarily for the Ravel opera, a score I sometimes still struggle with, despite its delights. This was not the most orchestrally luxurious reading but the young RAM soloists did well, nicely articulating the French, though none fully technically mastered these tiny roles. It must be said though that having to establish a character (and establish stability in the voice) in such a short time is a real challenge for any singer, and no one did a disservice to Ravel's music. Jean-Baptiste Barriére provided a video accompaniment on a screen behind the singers that was rather literal and not hugely alluring in its primary colours and photoshop effects. It would surely have been more enjoyable for the kids (this was billed as a "family concert") to see the opera semi-staged.

Poulenc's lavish ballet suite Les animaux modèles (1941-3), amusingly and engagingly narrated by actor Stephen Mangan, was a nice rarity to experience, though it is hardly vintage Poulenc. I've talked before about Poulenc's thieving but in this piece the thefts are so blatant and the score so inflated beyond its means that as soon as we notice what's going on, boredom rears its ugly head and it's impossible to ignore the lack of inspiration. The thefts are the usual suspects - Stravinsky, Ravel, Chabrier, Canteloube - and it would be possible to point not just to particular works, but particular bars that Poulenc is sourcing his material from - the end of Ravel's left hand piano concerto for instance is plundered mercilessly. The swooning strings and jungle like density of the orchestration (Villa-Lobos, only pleasant) over the plodding and dutifully sentimental harmony, point to Hollywood as the fundamental "Ur-theft", already an idiom where borrowing and imitation is the order of the day. (Indeed, having just checked, it seems he was concurrently writing for the silver screen at this time). The result, though lovely moment by moment, ends up being curiously bland in the long range and unworthy of Poulenc's best, because although his fundamental technique hasn't changed, it feels by rote and lacks his peculiar piquancy.

Lindberg's ebullient and lush clarinet concerto (2002) is also marked by flagrant borrowing and is an enjoyable romp, especially when played so entirely dazzlingly by Mark Simpson, replete with partially improvised cadenza (the best portion of the performance!). Again, Hollywood schmaltz is a clear point of contact but it's made fuzzy and "serious" by filtration through Lutoslawski. The result is cartoonish in its eclecticism, which can be fun, and though Lindberg moves surprisingly smoothly between the two, and does lots of beautiful things, the self conscious juxtaposition of these disparate elements feels dilettantish in not really being fully committed to either and so the final impression is one of superficiality because the musical materials aren't being taken entirely seriously by their composer. Or to put it another way, their integration and synthesis feels incomplete. Perhaps it was just in this performance that Baldur Brönnimann was underlining these contrasts, and I will recant totally if I hear another performance? Corigliano's famous clarinet concerto of 1977 suffers in an analogous way - though it's enjoyable when taken as pure entertainment, the huge dramatic gestures come out as total melodrama in the post modern context of the piece because they don't derive from musical logic and so it's difficult to take seriously in terms of what it Corigliano claims he is trying to express.

Martinu's Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra is typical of his earliest phase in being a classic example of motorically spiky 1920's neoclassicism and also depressingly grey in colour - the Dvorakian luminosity and lyrical gift was not to appear for another few years.

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