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BSO: Franco-Iberian Impressionism


Javier Perianes (Liza Voll photo)
Javier Perianes (Liza Voll photo)

Thursday’s BSO concert mostly provided sheer delight in three masterpieces of Franco-Iberian Impressionism. Charles Dutoit has made a specialty of concert performances of opera on BSO programs. This was the fourth such that I remember, after Stravinsky’s Nightingale and Ravel’s l’Enfant et les sortilèges (October 2012) and Szymanowski’s King Roger (last spring). Last night he brought us a first for the Boston Symphony, Ravel’s first opera, l’Heure espagnole, composed 1907-09 on a one-act libretto by Franc-Nohain. Ravel (1875-1937) was born of Franco-Basque ancestry in Ciboure, a village of St.-Jean-de-Luz very close to the Spanish border. Like Bizet, Lalo, and Debussy, he was a Frenchman who loved Spanish music and embraced it in his own work. Manuel de Falla (1876-1946), by contrast, was a native Spaniard who trained in his native land and then went to Paris to absorb the vitality of Impressionism.

The program began with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, composed 1908 during a banner year that also produced his greatest work for piano, Gaspard de la nuit. The Rapsodie was Ravel’s first independent composition for orchestra, and it revealed from the very start not only his bold originality in harmony but his amazing mastery of orchestral color that even exceeded Debussy’s; Ravel learned a good deal, too, from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol, even lifting some melodic bits from it. The Boston Symphony players were in peak form and clearly enjoying everything. I thought that Dutoit should have reined in the volume of the horns in several places, including the Habañera where the change from minor to major is signaled by the open horns’ A fading to muted Asharp. But this was my only cavil in a performance that glittered with memorable touches: the hushed bass clarinet at the beginning of the Malagueña; the piccolo’s delicate high A just before the end of the same dance (in most performances this difficult note comes out as a shriek); the luminous sound of string harmonics that Ravel scattered through the score as nowhere else in his work. There still remains a problem in orchestral balance in the Feria, where from time to time it is hard to hear the uppermost melodic line, and I have yet to hear any performance that copes with this completely. It didn’t help that Dutoit took the tempo in the Feria, especially in the second half, so fast that one couldn’t hear the savagery of the harmony or the triplets-within-triplets; the Feria needs to be very lively but not panicked. (See my book, Debussy and the Veil of Tonality, for a discussion of what Debussy nicked from the Habañera in at least two of his works, and from the Feria in his last work, the Violin Sonata — but the expropriations were admirable.)

The aesthetic of musical Impressionism is at variance with the idea of concertante display, and this is why there really aren’t any Impressionist concertos. Ravel’s two concertos come from after his Impressionist period, and Debussy’s beautiful Fantaisie, which he avoided publishing or performing, really comes from before his. But Manuel de Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España, in which the piano is both soloistic and orchestral, is the exception that by and large fits the rule. Falla spent five years composing this work, subtitled “Symphonic Impressions for piano and orchestra,” with loving meticulousness — his score is peppered with as many expression marks as any of Ravel’s, and more than any of Debussy’s. It is extraordinary that last night’s performance was the first in a regular BSO series in nearly 70 years, in fact since December 1946 when Luise Vosgerchian was the soloist. I heard her play it with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra in, I think, December 1959 (I was playing cymbals), and I remembered that she used a handkerchief to negotiate the black-key glissandos.

Nights in the Gardens of Spain has some problems of form; the “impressions” often don’t connect with sufficient symphonic logic, and the ideas, notwithstanding their splendor in isolation and an instrumental realization that is often magnificent, are sometimes too assorted. The third movement is the weakest in this regard, and the first the most convincing. But the work as a whole, with its cante jondo melodic organization and its re-imagination of different flamenco guitar styles into both the solo part and the orchestra, is uniquely lovely and satisfying, and it’s no wonder, as the program notes observe, that Artur Rubinstein recorded it four times. I have to say that I was not very happy with last night’s performance. Most of all, the orchestra was too loud nearly all the time, especially the brass. The C-sharp major horns on page 3, for instance, are marked pp but sounded with an unmistakable f in what should be a subtle cadence. These nocturnes should be quiet and restrained except where significant volume is really called for. This was plain enough from the beginning, where the harp, doubling the ponticello violas, was definitely too strong—I’m sure it was not playing près de la table as indicated in the score. But Robert Sheena’s fine English horn playing—indeed, thoughout the evening—was memorably warm and expressive.

The piano soloist, Javier Perianes, is listed in Wikipedia as born 38 years ago but he looks much younger. While he appeared shy on stage, his sound was anything but, being assertive, theatrical, and direct. There were instances of changing tempi when the piano wasn’t together with the orchestra, and Perianes’s tendency, when playing the flamenco melodic line in octaves, to lead the left hand ahead of the right was distinctly annoying. Is it too much to say that all the things I complain about here might have been obviated by another hour of rehearsal? The audience seemed to sense this as well, I think. But after conferring with Dutoit, Perianes sat down again and played an encore, the Notturno, op. 54, no. 4, from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces. This example shows kinship to the Ballade and the Nocturne in D-flat major among Debussy’s earliest piano works. Perianes’s exquisite performance disclosed a particularly fine pianissimo.

Ravel’s l’Heure espagnole, subtitled “comédie musicale” in one act doesn’t have the visionary fantasy of l’Enfant et les sortilèges, yet it has instead an invigorating bedroom farcicality that at the same time is entirely respectable. Replete with puns and doubles-entendres, the libretto faithfully showed in the well-translated supertitles. (There was talk, after the premiere in 1911, that it was too risqué for Paris society—which somehow seems unlikely.) We know, too, that Ravel, whose father was an automotive engineer, had a lifelong fondness for mechanical toys and devices, hence the opera’s setting in a clock shop, with music boxes and automata and clocks ticking at different rates (M. M. 40, 100, and 232 in the score) constituted a fine stimulus to his imagination. In last night’s semi-staged performance, one could not have asked for better voices or better vocal acting. Jean-Luc Ballestra, baritone, characterized a strong but unperturbed muleteer, Ramiro; François Piolino’s clear and resonant tenor intoned the clockmaker, Torquemada; soprano Daniela Mack as Concepción, sang with a wider vibrato than I like but this became more restrained as she hit her stride, and her projection and articulation were quite perfect; singing with Italianate brilliance, tenor Benjamin Hulett made a fine turn as the self-absorbed poet Gonzalve; David Wilson-Johnson, bass-baritone, perfectly conveyed the lyric pomposity of Don Iñigó Gómez, the “seigneur puissant.”

All manner of bizarreries animate the orchestration, even down to the use of a spring (ressort) in the percussion section—maybe it was a bedspring that Ravel had in mind, but in any case I couldn’t hear it at all. One doesn’t often hear a lip trill on the trombone, but there is one, five bars before no. 8. At no. 16, the whole section of cellos, divided in 3, plays a chord of plucked glissandi, a wonderful sound. In the orchestral prelude, Ravel asks the contrabassoon (sarrusophone, in the score) to play Bflat above the treble clef, with a footnote directing that the reed alone be played, and the actual notes don’t matter; this is a familiar squeak at student rehearsals. The spectacular up-and-down glissando by all three trombones was not the first use of a trombone glissando, because Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande had used it five years earlier, but at no. 73 one can find the glissandi in string harmonics that Stravinsky made famous in Firebird, two years later. I could go on and on, and still I’d like to say something about the tonal and harmonic structure that I don’t have room for here—for instance the wildly crunchy chords when Ramiro swings the clock (with Gonzalve in it) back and forth are very like the fff full orchestra harmony in the Khorovod section of The Rite of Spring, which is five years after l’Heure espagnole. (Another testimonial, if any were needed, to how those great masters active in Paris in the belle époque nourished each other. Ravel couldn’t have written the Ma Mère l’Oye ballet as he did without having heard The Firebird. Stravinsky couldn’t have written Firebird without knowing some of l’Heure espagnole.)

Benjamin- Hulett, Daniela Mack, Jean Luc Ballestra, David Wilson Johnson, and Francois Piolino (Lisa Voll photo)
Benjamin Hulett, Daniela Mack, Jean Luc Ballestra, David Wilson Johnson, and Francois Piolino (Lisa Voll photo)

I first saw l’Heure espagnole in, I think, 1961, at the New England Conservatory, in a performance conducted by Ross Reimuller; this might well have been the first performance ever in Boston. I saw it again at the Boston Conservatory, four years ago, and reported on it here. I do need to mention two very good videos. The Glyndebourne DVD, a Ravel double bill conducted by Kazushi Ono (FRA Musica, EDV 1610-FRA 008), was recorded in 2012. I have an older Glyndebourne recording of the same two operas (l’Enfant et les sortilèges conducted by Simon Rattle, l’Heure espagnole by Sian Edwards). The performances are excellent, but this Heure espagnole is particularly remarkable because the automata are replaced by tableaux vivants, a clever and very effective stroke of staging originality. This older recording I have only on videodisc (Pioneer Artists / LaserDisc PA-88-223). Although I bought this disc perhaps 25 years ago, the laserdisc technology is now so obsolete that I cannot locate a videodisc player anywhere in the Boston area. I will donate my laserdisc to anyone who is willing to transcribe it onto ordinary DVD for me.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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