In water, from Handel to John Adams composers have found a fecund source of inspiration. Whether it be tempestuous seas or calm ocean voyages, the search for musical analogues to describe the moods and textures of the aquatic world is inexhaustible. This programme from the CBSO under conductor Ludovic Morlot offered pictorial representations by Sibelius and John Adams, together with the two Ravel Piano Concertos – a prefect, if tangential, fit when you consider the limpid surface of the music in both pieces.
The concertos apart, these works are not often programmed, so it was good to have a such a convenient 'hook' to hang them on. The Tempest, composed by Sibelius for a production of Shakespeare's play, takes the form of a series of orchestral crescendos, replicating the rages of a storm at sea which finally subsides, exhausted. All sections of the orchestra enjoyed themselves in creating what could, in less assured hands, have been a shapeless cacaphony. Daringly, that first production substituted Sibelius' work for Shakespeare's introductory scene, which describes a shipwreck. On balance, and in a convincing performance like this one, I think Sibelius makes the point more eloquently than the Bard, even if this is one of the Finnish master's minor works.
The same composer's The Oceanides is a major work, though one seldom heard in the concert hall, so it was a pleasure to encounter a performance as auspicious as this. Beginning with a vivid impression of clearing mists, superbly played by violins and timpani, the piece progressed through other lifelike impressions of birdsong and the push of the sea to the central section, leading to the orchestral climax and the 'appearance' of the Oceanides – daughters of the sea god, Neptune. This was a wonderfully spotlit moment, before the piece settled back into the troubled stillness of the sea after a very different storm to the one that blew through The Tempest.
Since the programme placed the Sibelius works adjacent to the Ravel concertos, we were better able to appreciate the contrasting sound worlds of these two contemporaries, with the weighty orchestrations of the Finn meeting the pellucid textures of the Frenchman. They may not be the most searching works for piano and orchestra but they have an elusive charm, stopping just the right side of whimsy, that quickly gains and holds the attention if you're in the mood. Perhaps the shift in mood required was too extreme, but in these performances by the increasingly impressive Steven Osborne, it was impossible not to surrender to Ravel's introverted milieu, where even the 'jolly little tune' that kicks off the G major concerto has an air of abstraction hinting that tears are never far away. Although real depth of feeling threatens to intrude in the Adagio assai, the jazz-derived rhythms of the outer movements preclude too much introspection and the work finishes leaving the listener agreeably puzzled. As so often with Ravel, ambiguity is the key and Osborne had the measure of the solo part, which he despatched with unshowy virtuosity. Here and in the left-hand concerto, he showed himself to be a master of Ravel's diffident art, as he did in a penetrating encore of Oiseaux tristes.
When a conductor feels moved to advise us on how we should listen to a new work, should we be nervous? Perhaps. Ludovic Morlot has been an advocate of John Luther Adams' Become Ocean since its 2013 première and he is in no doubt of its quality. We were asked to accept the piece as a meditation, although on what, he wasn't specific. The title might offer an obvious clue but in a programme note, Adams reminds us that, just as human life originally emerged from the ocean, “as the polar ice melts and the sea level rises”, we might now be on a journey back, to literally “become ocean”. The work is scored for a large orchestra, with each group repeating shifting sequences that merged and flowed into each other for just over 40 minutes. The piece has its virtues, and would be heard to best effect in private listening, or accompanying visual images, as with Philip Glass's score for Koyaanisqatsi. It might be perfect music to 'tune out' to, but in the concert hall, I expect emotional engagement and the excitement that comes from watching the players listen and respond to each other. In the absence of these elements, it felt unfathomable.
A qualified hurrah, then; but the Ravel and the Sibelius were both out of the top drawer.
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