Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Danses Macabres - Ravel, Ligeti, Benjamin, Mozart Prom 22

Danses macabres at Prom 22, with Mozart, Ligeti, George Benjamin and Ravel. Pierre-Laurent Aimard led the procession with Mozart's Piano Concerto no 7 (K595), using Mozart's own cadenzas. By Aimard's usual glorious standards, this was relatively restrained but in many ways this approach worked,  integrating  with the tautness of what was to come.

György Ligeti Musica ricerata no 2 Mesto, rigido e ceremoniale is skeletal. It was written in 1950 when such modern, innovative expression could get you thrown in prison under the Communist regime. Spare textures, quirkiness, music heard in the mind rather than as public consumption. Even the deremonial procession's secretive, sketched in outlines for the listener to flesh out. Jonathan Nott conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in the seminal Ligeti Project for Teldec some years ago. It was his finest moment. Sometimes his work is mixed, but at this Prom he was good.

Good Proms coverage for George Benjamin's Duet (2008) first heard at  Lucerne in 2009. and later at Aldeburgh the same year. It's a new departure for Benjamin, his first piece for piano and orchestra. Benjamin’s own notes describe it succinctly. “The piano has an enormous pitch compass and is capable of accumulating complex resonating harmonies, but each note begins to decay as soon as it it is sounded. On the other hand, stringed and wind instruments can sustain and mould their notes after the initial attack”. Thus Benjamin tries to find common ground, restricting the pitch range of the piano, avoiding the higher registers where decay occurs quickly. Percussion, harp and pizzicato create attenuated sounds that meet the piano on its own ground.

The piano part isn’t elaborately flamboyant: rather it’s spare, single notes occurring in series, like flurries. It evoked the movement of birds – short, quick jerks expanding into flourish as they take flight. Duet for piano and Orchestra is a different kind of concertante, where soloist and orchestra don’t interact in the usual way, but observe each other, so to speak. Then, with a punchy crescendo, it’s over. Benjamin’s music often sounds pointilliste, like detailed embroidery, but here there’s sharpness in design, and clarity of direction.

Piano and orchestra warily stalk each other's moves, so Duet is a kind of furtive, circulating dance. Excellent introduction to Ravel's danses macabres. First, Valses nobles et sentimentales, intelligently played, favouring the noblesse. Then, in apposite contrast, the relatively little heard Miroirs – Une barque sur l'océan and La valse, so famous that it's basic repertoire.

Hearing them together enhanced Miroirs. It made me think of the Flying Dutchman, not Wagner, but the  haunted soul doomed to sail the high seas. The moments of calm seemed eerie. La Valse of course isn't Johann Strauss. It's haunted too, by the horrors of war.  A fine performance from Nott and the BBCSO, though not, perhaps as savage as it might have been, but plenty good anyway..

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