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S&H Concerts Review

Ruggles, Gershwin, Ives, Bernstein Symfonieorkest van de Munt (Brussels)/Antonio Pappano/ Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano) De Singel, Antwerp 13 February 2002

Copland, Prokofiev, Ravel LSO/ Han-Na Chang, cello Antonio Pappano 7 March 2002

Crumb, Holst (with Colin Matthews’ Pluto) BBC Symphony Orchestra/Kazuchi Ono 8 March 2002 (PGW)


For the Brussels Le Monnaie opera orchestra, their visit to Antwerp was a great night out, and one to give hope that Antonio Pappano may encourage similar diversification when he takes over the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden later this year. His eclectic tastes have already been displayed in London, and his supersensitive control of orchestral timbres was to be relished again in the fine Blue Hall (one of four) at the modern Antwerp arts complex outside the centre of the city. It is a pleasant concert venue, with perfect sight lines, ample legroom for everyone and excellent acoustics to show off a large orchestra.

The programme seemed to be trying too hard to please everyone; for me the Gershwin piano concerto was a misfit - undistinguished music, which has never convinced me that it deserves its place in the repertoire, nor did Thibaudet's efficient account persuade me otherwise, delight the audience though it did. Best was first, Carl Ruggles' concentrated, uncompromising masterpiece, introduced to Paris by Nicolas Slonimsky in 1932, but USA only in 1966! A strong solid creation by one of the finest of the American experimentalists, treading its own path, not derivative even if arousing fleeting thoughts of Sibelius (En Saga) & Varese; not so quirky and inconsequential as Ives can be - Ruggles was very much a man unto himself.

The spell was broken with the brash Gershwin concerto; there appeared to be little that Pappano could do with it, though the audience responded to its energy. After the interval magic of another kind was established with the Ives, which needed two conductors to control the simultaneous, rhythmically unrelated strands. This was a 1954 version of the much earlier The Unanswered Question for smaller forces; recomposed as the last of his Three Outdoor Scenes (a great pity we did not hear them all together) it requires an extravagant line-up including six hands at two pianos (we had the two pianos but only two pianists!). For me the Bernstein was a surprise and made a worthy finish to an interesting concert. I had not heard in concert this1961 recomposition of music from the mould-breaking musical of 1956, and it is noteworthy for the ordering of selected items (with a quiet finish) and especially for the expertise of Bernstein's orchestration which gave every opportunity for each section to shine - notably the percussion who had a field day - and for Pappano who draw expressive subtlety from the orchestra. He is a master of strings pianissimo, as remembered from the Verdi Requiem at The Barbican.

Back in London, Pappano began his LSO concert with another American favourite, Copland's evocative Quiet City, which commenced with Pappano’s trademark – a practically inaudible pianissimo. Prokofiev's Symphony Concerto (1938/52) has never established itself in the repertoire and can be an uncomfortable work to hear. Very long, with a huge central movement, Han-Na Chang was a forceful, commanding cellist with a big tone, but did not seem to have got inside this elusive score. However, it was worth hearing live to demonstrate that Prokofiev solved all the balance problems completely - no need for the artificial spotlighting of the soloist which is ubiquitous nowadays on recordings and, to a lesser degree, in broadcasts. Next day, Rostropovich's ardour and creative phrasing in the live 1964/72 recordings Rostropovich The Russian Years box (EMI Classics 7243 5 72016 2 9) convinced me that the work is not just an ugly duckling, but is one which demands consummate musicianship as well as transcendent technique. This rather peculiar (and very long) programme finished with a fine account of Ravel's complete ballet score of Daphnis et Chloé, in which the LSO chorus was more effectively integrated with the orchestra than at San Sebastian ( - - Ravel's ballet score Daphnis & Chloe, in its complete version with a large, wordless choir (the Sociedad Coral de Bilbao had far too little to do but did it well) fared less well - - ); one always feels sorry for the choristers when those wordless passages are their only contributions in a programme.

The following day there was another substantial American work in a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by Kazuchi Ono, who will succeed Pappano as Music Director of Le Monnaie in Brussels this summer. George Crumb's 1979 Star-Child, (Bridge 9095, also including Mundus Canis) is an elaborate construction, with a graphically intriguing score but, to my ears, is thinner in musical content than its apparatus (large orchestra, two choirs and bell ringers) justifies. Crumb frankly acknowledges that his contrasted musics superimposed on slow moving continuous strains for strings are 'in the manner of Charles Ives', and this needed the luxury of three assistant conductors to coordinate it all. Best was the singing of Valdine Anderson in duet with the singing-trombonist Roger Harvey (echoes of Berio's Sequenza).

Afterwards The Planets (which I had been avoiding for some years, even though Calum MacDonald claims that it remains 'immediately impressive after a hundred hearings') was unexpectedly invigorating and was done proud by Kazuchi Ono, conducting without a score, including Colin Matthews' Pluto the Renewer, which emerged from the dying strains of the wordless chorus finishing Neptune. Time will tell whether that addition, which has achieved success on CD, give The Planets another 80 years lease of life and popularity?

Peter Grahame Woolf

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