Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Andriessen Ravel Mother Goose Salonen Philharmonia Prom

So what if there are no US orchestras at this year's Proms? Listen to London's own Philharmonia Orchestra, They've long been one of the best in this country. Now under Esa-Pekka Salonen they're entering an even more glowing phase. Having heard their amazing Gurrelieder and astute Mahler I was prepared for excellence but this Prom 43 produced some of the finest playing all season, despite much strong competition.

It was misleading that the thread was "dance" because this wasn't raucous, crowd-pleasing noise. Dance, particularly ballet, isn't necessarily pound, pound, pound. Ravels Mother Goose Ma mère l’oye, often gets straightforward graphic treatment, as if all it needs is "making the pictures". Salonen and the Philharmonia caught the spirit of fantasy that transforms the nursery stories into something truly magical. Instead of crude cartoon colours, Salonen and the Philharmonia produced luminous, gossamer-like textures infused with light. Details were defined with real delicacy of touch, so it really did feel that the music was "flying".

This was Mother Goose for adults, or at least adults who haven't lost the wonder of youth. ir souls in cynical materialism. Sensuous violins, woodwinds, horns like calls from fairyland. The prelude soars into a plane beyond the mundane world. Each tableaux is exquisitely beautiful. Yet nursery tales also operate on deeper levels. The Sleeping Beauty has been put to sleep by sinister forces. In her dreams, though, she's not alone. She meets characters like The Beast and Hop o' my thumb. Sometimes you can "hear" birds fluttering in this . The two final sections are truly magical. Into Little Ugly, Empress of the Pagodas, Ravel works in "oriental" themes, which for people in his time was code for sensuality and exotic otherness. So when The Sleeping Beauty meets her Prince in the Enchanted Garden, with lustrous glissandi building up to a full throated "awakening", you know she's transfigured.

Bolero is stark primary colours, but Salonen and the Philharmonia go deeper, accessing the way the music builds up, layer by layer. It's a kind of procession, where new elements enter as the music progresses until it reaches its full-bodied climate. Each element adds new flavours, but fundamentally it's defined by the steady beat of the drum, reflected in the strumming pizzicato. In flamenco, rigid rhythmic discipline is part of the style creating a tension that makes the brief flourishes sound all the more dynamic. Salonen makes sure the orchestra doesn't lose this tight basic pulse, as the climax builds. The wildness is in the music - no need to throw colourful jackets into the crowd. Salonen knows just how shockingly modernist this music is in itself without having to play it for thrills. Eavel himself called Bolero "not music". It iis an experiment in structure. So this performance was far more musically-astute than the usual flamboyant versions have led us to believe.

The more I think about this Ravel, I realise how musically astute it was. Ravel is experimenting with ostinato and strict rhythm, the discipline of flamenco, where feet stamp in ritual progression, body helfd taught and unflinching. Everyone loves Bolero because now we hear it as flamboyant and colourful but Ravel's idea was more experimental and unusual. And this performance brings out the musical logic behind it.

Salonen premiered Louis Andriessen's The Hague Hacking in Los Angeles in January, with the sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque for whom it was written. Like Bolero, the piece moves in choppy progressions, inspired by popular song and dance. Another inspiration was Tom and Jerry who chase each other round malevolently.

Against an almost flat line of strings, the pianos circle, interacting back and forth like a complex machine. Long wind, string and brass lines that reach out over the pianos. The instrumentation includes electric guitars and cimbalom, so despite the relative simplicity of the piece, there's something otherworldly in it. The percussion creates sounds like giant bells heard over a long distance, though they're actually metal tubes struck by muffled hammer, sometimes augmented by brass, taking up the jaunty effect of piano as percussion. I don't know what the piece is "about" but I enjoyed its vivacious, cheerful liveliness, so much less pretentious than some new music around.

In fact that's what I like about Andriessen. He's so down to earth, a natural subversive, yet with a sense of fun. After the Prom there was a very good "Composer Portrait" featuring more of his music. Especially striking is the one-minute trumpet piece which switches from sonata, rondo to ABA song. As Andriessen says, he likes to contrast "sharp" with "soft", precise with abstract. Thus his Images of Gustave Moreau whose paintings follow the same logic. Then, Bells of Haarlem. This refers to bells stolen by the Crusaders from Palestine, and rung each night in Haarlem. They sound tiny, metallic, vulnerable but the orchestral setting, complete with celesta gives it resonance.
PLEASE see my other posts on Andriessen by following the labels at the list on right. Lots of stuff and a special on De Staat, and the Proms performance. Se Staat is a seminal work. No De Staat, no Steve Reich ?

1 comment:

Whatsonstage said...

I really enjoyed Mother Goose too. Found the Andriessen a tad disappointing but will listen some more on iplayer. Looking forward to De Staat. Simon.