|Debussy and Stravinsky, 1910|
On the centenary of Debussy's death, "Debussy and Beyond", with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican,, conducted by François-Xavier Roth. This was the highlight of an unusually well planned series, examining Debussy from different angles. Anyone can programme mechanical "greatest hits" programes, but from Roth and the LSO we can expect much more musical nous. In "The Young Debussy", we heard the influences that shaped him, In "The Essence of Debussy", we heard well known pieces and the less well known, like the Fantasie for piano and orchestra,. This series has been challenging because it didn't spoonfeed, but presentedthoughtful challenges for further listening and contemplation. For "Debussy and Beyond", there could be dozens of possible contenders, since Debussy's influence on modern music is so extensive. Debussy changed the game, no less. He paved the way for others, whose music is very diffrent from his own, and continues to inspire. This evening's programme focussed on large ensemble, and on major works that would often be the backbone of most concerts. It lasted nearly three hours, but was so rewarding that time passed all too soon.
Homage to Debussy and also homage to Pierre Boulez, one of Debussy's finest interpreters and champions, who was born seven years and one day after Debussy died. Much has been written about how Boulez's Livre pour cordes morphed, or didn't morph, over 20+ years, so it's not worth repeating, save to say that it is "mega string quartet" scored for 16 first and 14 second violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and 8 basses. The four main groups are multiplied into many parts, creating intricate polyphonic textures. Onto this a panoply of techniques, for further variety. Yet the whole piece lasts under 11 minutes. It's a model of tightly woven concision - nothing extraneous - precision. Roth conducted the LSO, so it came over as chamber music, albeit on a grand scale, the players interacting with precison and grace. Not "impressionism", in the "mood painting" sense of the word, but finely detailed complexity, extending Debussy's tonal ambiguity and chromatic adventure.
Though there's ostensibly little direct connection between Debussy and Bartók, both were pillars of twentieth century music, and cannot be ignored. Many others might have been included, but for practical, logistic reasons, this concert focussed on works for very large ensemble. Bartók's Violin Concerto no 2 BB117 (1937-8) served to balance the other two big pillars of the programme, Stravinsky's Chant du Rossignol and Debussy's La Mer, with Renaud Capuçon as soloist.. Capuçon's long solo passages were played with style, contrasting well with the striking orchestral backdrop. Since the LSO has a commendable commitment to new music, this was followed by the world premiere of Ewan Campbell's Frail Skies (2017), another work for very large orchestra including piano. I'd hesitate to call it a tone poem, though there are images in the music that suggest the forces of Nature. Though the title suggests the sky, I thought of waves in an ocean, carrying thousands of minute particles carried in their wake. The piece moves in cyclic fashion beginning and ending with solo cello surrounded by larger, darker forces, traversing other cyclic patterns along the way. High woodwinds added lightness, somnolent strings and brass added density. No young composer could compress as much into a short work as Boulez did with Livre pour cordes, but at least new work is being written, and new composers are finding their way.
Debussy and Stravinsky knew each other well. The photo above shows them together during the 1910 Ballets Russe season in Paris in 1910, when The Firebird was performed. For this programme, François-Xavier Roth included Stravinsky's Chant du rossignol, loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's tale about a nightingale and a mythical Emperor of China. Given that Debussy was fascinated with Japanese and Indonesian culture, this was an inspired choice, connecting Debussy's eclectic interests and the craze for "primitive" non- western art, which made Stravinksy and Diaghilev sensation. French orientalism, which has a long past, was to stimulate numerous artists and composers, from Ravel to Picasso, to Messiaen and beyond. Recently Roth and Les Siècles gave a concert in Paris, which iuncluded a gamelan orchestra (read more here). With Chant du rossignol, Roth and the LSO open out a whole horizon to explore. In purely musical terms, Chant du rossignol is also apposite because Stravinsky blends exotic colour with lyricism. The nightingale is no Firebird, but its fragility is its strength. A violin sings for the mechanical nightingale, its elaborate trills deliberately formal. The flute sings for the real nightingale, singing with freedom and inventivenss. The Emperor, for all his wealth, cannot compete. The music that depicted him was dark and slow - basses and low timbred winds and brass, and tam tam, against which the "nightingale" shone ever more brightly. Exquisite detail in this performance, even in small figures, like trombone ellipses and the sensation of breeze (harps, strings, brass) at the very end.
François-Xavier Roth has conducted Debussy La mer so many times that it's practically his trademeark. He's even constructed whole programmes around it (please read more here). This time it felt valedictory. After that outstanding performance of Chant du rossignol, it was good to pause and reflect on Debussy and his legacy. La mer never loses its magic but seems to forever reveal new depths. The ocean covers most of the planet : different in different parts of the world, but always developing. A metaphor for music !