Prom 29 had a distinctly French flavour, featuring music by Ravel and Messiaen, two composers who idolized Mozart, whose music opened the evening. The concert was bookended by two works in which dance featured strongly, from Mozart’s elegant post-Baroque ballet sequence for Idomeneo to Ravel’s swirling, breathless portrait of the disintegration of fin-de-siècle Vienna. Ravel also looked to Mozart’s piano concertos as a model for his own, and the vibrant, jazzy G major concerto formed the second part of the first half of the programme, performed by French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Paul Mitchell
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Paul Mitchell

The Mozart was an agreeable hors d’oeuvre to the main courses of the evening, giving the BBC Philharmonic’s string section an opportunity to display silken lyrical textures. Nicholas Collon’s conducting seemed almost “scoreless”, such was his ease in the music, and the entire ensemble displayed crisp articulation and a keen sense of timing.

Maurice Ravel declared that the music of a concerto should be “light-hearted and brilliant and not aim at profundity or dramatic effects”. Never mind then that his concerto for the left hand is one of the most serious in the repertoire! In contrast, the Piano Concerto in G major fizzes and sparkles, all jaunty Art Deco angles and jazz-inspired rhythms with some very obvious nods to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (composed in 1924) in the opening movement. There are Lisztian touches too in the frenetic glissandi and virtuoso passages, and references to Ravel’s Basque heritage in Spanish-inspired rhythms and guitar improvisation. The movement opens with a whipcrack and a cheerful piccolo ditty – no profundity or pretension here!  - before moving into exuberant quasi-divertimento territory.

The slow movement has a simple linear continuity, which owes much to the Larghetto of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet to which Ravel referred while composing it. After the opening statements in the piano, the theme is taken over by the orchestra and the piano bubbles along with filigree passages redolent of the decorated passages of the slow movements of Mozart piano concertos and sonatas. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s featherlight touch and delicacy of tone were given free rein in this serene middle movement. In the outer movements, his colouring, deftness, ebullience and finesse, dispatching the most complex passages with lightness and sensitivity, made for an exciting and idiomatic performance, matched by the energy and enthusiasm of the orchestra. Special mention must go to the piccolo, cor anglais, principal horn, trumpet and bassoon players in this work. Bavouzet enjoys a special relationship with the BBC Philharmonic and it showed in the strong empathy and evident pleasure between soloist and orchestra.

An encore followed, a skittering Étude de Concert by Gabriel Pierné, so exquisitely voiced by Bavouzt that I wondered if the woodwind had joined in at one point.

Back to the auditorium for the second half and a glorious array of percussion was assembled on the stage in readiness for the Messiaen. Un oiseau des arbres de Vies (Oiseau tui) was intended to be part of a pair of movements featuring the tui bird from New Zealand and the lyrebird from Australia and were to be placed third and fourth in Messiaen’s 12-movement working plan for his Éclairs sur l’Au-delà…. (Illuminations of the Beyond). The lyrebird remained in the finished work, but Messiaen decided to omit the tui bird. He had in fact written up all the music for the movement and needed only to write up the orchestration, and the score was marked with his customary “Bien” to indicate a finished piece. The orchestration in this performance (a world première) was realised by Christopher Dingle based on Messiaen’s annotations. The work opens with a punchy squawk from almost the entire orchestra which then interjects a frisky song that is shared around the orchestra and repeatedly falls onto three cellos. In a pre-concert interview with Radio 3, Nicholas Collon admitted that the work is incredibly difficult to conduct because of the rapid switches of tempo and myriad time signatures, but the performance was sharply articulated, rhythmic and colourful, and the percussion section was particularly fine in this work.

Messiaen and Stravinsky share similar soundworlds – striking rhythms, sparkling melodic fragments and rich colouration - and Stravinsky displays a cross-continental side in his Symphony in Three Movements which was originally written as a piece of music for the Hollywood film The Song of Bernadette. The work opens with a sense of grandeur, with its intense and urgent octaves and slicing chords, suggestive of machinery, while the final movement has a distinctly military tread. As in the Mozart, this was the ideal opportunity for the BBC Philharmonic to shine, the brass and woodwind being especially impressive in this work.

More birds in Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes” from Miroirs, originally cast for piano and orchestrated by Colin Matthews (another world premiere). Ravel orchestrated two movements from Miroirs himself, and considered “Oiseaux Triste” “unpianistic”, which may have led Colin Matthews to pick up the work. It opens with a haunting motif in the woodwind, birdsong as if heard from afar in a dark forest. The full orchestra enters with plaintive murmurings. The orchestration certainly extended the possibilities offered by the piano score, particularly in terms of texture, metre and tempo to create a work which was subtle and atmospheric.

A dance closed the concert, Ravel’s sensuous La Valse, rejected by Diaghilev as not a ballet but “a portrait of a ballet”, which became a masterpiece in its own right. Ravel himself described the work as “a kind of apotheosis of the waltz”, and it is in part a hommage to Strauss and Vienna (Ravel first thought of calling it Wien), but also a “fantastic and fateful whirlpool” into which crumbles the dying Austria empire. The extravagant Straussian episodes contrast strongly with percussive climaxes and portentous rumblings, and each return of the waltz seems more vehement, with greater rhythmic and harmonic excesses as the genre is extended into a final explosion, surely a direct expression of the trauma of the First War experienced by the composer. It was the rapturous finale to an highly engaging and varied concert.

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