At the Barbican, Pascal Rophé conducted the BBCSO, replacing François-Xavier Roth who was indisposed. Cancellations happen (as I wrote in my piece on Jonas Kaufmann HERE), so even though Roth wasn't there, the serious music lovers were. Not that Roth appeals to the glitzy fashionista crowd. The regulars were there anyway, since Rophé has conducted the BBCSO many times.
More disappointing,the programme changed. Boulez Livre pour cordes was meant to be the highlight of the evening. It's not all that frequently heard, and Roth is perhaps the most intriguing Boulez conductor around. Rophé conducts a lot of Boulez too, but this piece is one of the few he can't pull up at short notice. Hardly surprising since it's a demanding work, not to be attempted at short notice.
Wiser then to substitute César Franck, Le chasseur maudit, a cracker of a show-opener. It's theatre in orchestral sound, beginning with a deliciousl fanfare of hunting horns and low brass and winds, evoking the idea of a huntsman enjoying the hunt. But a darker mood haunts the piece: we hear the suggestion of church bells tolling in the distance. The piece is based on a popular meme in European and French folk culture, wherein those who don't go to church but fool around otherwise will be doomed. Think Gurrelieder, and even Goethe's Die wandelnde Glocke where the clock jumps out of its case and chases the kid who won't go to church on Sunday, set gloriously by Carl Loewe. Franck evidently takes the side of the rebel rather than the dour, unforgiving church. The piece rollicks on merrily, its moments of shock-horror melodrama delivered with delicious wit. I don't know how much rehearsal time the BBC SO had with the piece, or whether it's part of their repertoire, but it was jolly enough, though not by any means a great work of art.
Perhaps we need such fairground pleasures on this cold and wet evening. Surprisingly, the lobby at the Barbican was almost empty, and there were many seats unfilled. Perhaps people stayed home to listen on the radio? But BBCSO concerts are frequently broadcast. The arrangement works extremely well because then you get the intense kick of live performance and also a chance to listen again for detail. So what was the strange mood in the Hall? Most unusual.
Spirits lifted again for Jean-Efflam Bavouzet,, playing Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand, a piece which Bavouzet has played so many times that he's joked that he can play with the left hand and send texts with the right ("though only in rehearsal"). The BBC Radio 3 website had originally advertised Bavouzet as conductor of this concert, and I'd half hoped he might conduct from the piano. No such luck last night, A good performance and satisying but not perhaps the wildest Bavouzet has ever done. The piece was written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right hand in battle, so its virtuosity came at a high price. The spectacular turns are haunted by darker whispers : perhaps we can hear gunfire in the subtle suggestions of staccato? Yet again, we needed to escape that grim thought. Bavouzet's encore was Ravel's The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.
Perhaops we needed light-hearted jollies before Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, which, when done well, can be a haunting nightmare lit up, sometimes, with a hint of bombast. But after last week, (in memory of which this concert was dedicated), we know where such things can lead. Another enjoyable experience, though a work as familiar as this should ideally yield more insight in good performance. Lots of French people in the audience, most of them under 30's. If Parisians can come to London for a concert, why can't Londoners show ?