Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Simon Rattle's musical challenge : Koechlin, Varèse and William Walton

Sir Simon Rattle, photo : Doug Peters
Simon Rattle Prom with the London Symphony Orchestra, programmed with typical intelligence  - Koechlin, Edgard Varèse and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast.  Disparate pieces that did work together in context, enlivened by a conductor with a genuinely inquisitive musical mind.  What does Charles Koechlin's Les Bandar-log op 176 (1939-40)  have in common with Edgard Varèse's Amériques ? and with William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast ?

Koechlin 's Les Bndar-log is a late work, writtn towards the end of the composer's life. Koechlin was bitter that the world had moved on, nearly 40 years after Debussy and Stravinsky. In Rudyard Kipling's poems, the monkeys of Bandar-log are scrawny  - brown - upstarts - put in their place by a bullying bear.  The racist implications of the piece are never far away. Koechlin's subtitle "the scherzo of the monkeys " isn't meant to be Disney-cute, it's a scherzo. Some composers of Koechlin's period blamed modernity on Jews, (Schoenberg and oddly enough Kurt Weill, who wasn't particularly modern), so the racist implications of the piece are relevant.  It's ironic that it's become the work by which Koechlin is best  known ! By placing it together with Varèse's Amériques, Rattle, with his gentle sense of humour, brings out strange similarities. Both pieces are composites, smaller units put together like a mosiac to form something bigger. Koechlin veers from style to style, waywardly, like monkeys move in the jungle.  Varèse builds blocks of shape as a cubist painter might do, adding vivid impressionistic detail, creating a virtual city in sound, full of life and incident.  Here, we heard the original 1921 version, with a larger orchestra, and extended percussion, which includes klaxon. For him, the modern represented hope, and his music has endured, its influence far-reaching. Amériques was effectivelyVarèse's opus one, and the work expresses the thrill of moving to a new continent, full of promise. Hearing the 1921 original is a reminder of how strikingly innovative the piece is, still fresh and vibrant after nearly 100 years.

Walton's Belshazzar's Feast (1931) has been done numerous times at the Proms, including two First Nights, and for good reason. It's a blockbuster, the LSO augmented by Orfeo Catala, Orfeo Catala Youth Choir, the London Symphony Chorus and soloist Gerald Finley.  The setting is ostensibly Babylon and biblical, but Walton's approach was modern and secular.  It's a thrilling piece - long lines that zig zag and extend wildly, against thunderoyus timpani. The score is quasi Hollywood, maximizing excess, with brass bands thrown into the heady mix.  Biblical as its context may be, it's hardly pious, but very much a piece of its time (1931) when the jazz age still prevailed and the Bright Young Things partied like there'd be no tomorrow.  Long, zig zag vocal lines swaying exuberatantly, punctuated by timpani, heightended by brass.  Belshazzar's having a rave.  "Babylon was a great city" sang Finlay with solemn portent, enumerating the treasures: "...chariots, slaves and the souls of men". Singing with unbridled delight, the choir let rip, with great freshness.  "Praise thee !, Praise thee !"  But as we know, parties don't last forever.  Ominous sounds from the orchestra. The King sees a hand writing on the wall "Mene, mene tekel upharsim". The  "Hebrew" sound of trumpets. the choir emphasising the baritone's words with dramatic finality "Slain! Slain”. Then we're back to zany 30's celebration. "Hallelujah ! Hallelujah!" Flamboyant riffs give way to ecstatic swoons.  "And the Light of  e Lord shall shine on us".  Yet more ecstatic Hallelujahs. "Make a joyful noise!"  A wonderful, vivid performsnce: Rattle understands the modernity and freedom that makes this piece so much more than  yet another British oratorio. Most animated Belshazzar's Feast in years, and there's been lots of competition.

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