Sun, Sea and Sirens from Debussy and Ravel

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

To contemporary eyes and ears the poems Ravel set for his song cycle ‘Shéhérazade’ are the epitome of what the cultural critic Edward Said labelled “Orientalism”. This is where non-Westerners are reduced to crudely demeaning stereotypes, usually colourful, violent passionate primitives. In the first song ‘Asie’ (Asia) we have: “dark faces with gleaming teeth”; “dark amorous eyes”; “skins as yellow as oranges”; “smiling murderers”; “roses and blood”. A century ago, however, this homage to the fantastic tales of the Arabian Nights was taken as intended – a kaleidoscope of colourful images from never-never land. Ravel clothes it in suitably light and luminous musical costumes and soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn lovingly caressed poet Tristan Klingsor’s images from the “wonderful land of nursery stories” derived from a delirious, perhaps narcotically enhanced, vision. In ‘L'indifférent’ Llewellyn conveyed the narrator’s lament for a what-might-have-been encounter with a fascinating stranger. The hopeful offer – come in for a drink – to the sighing fall of, “But no, you pass by.” We’ve all been there. In ‘La flûte enchantée’ Llewellyn was joined by flautist Marie-Christine Zupancic’s sinuous modal line “pouring out by turns, sadness and joy” before departing, “Like a mysterious kiss.” Absolutely gorgeous.

At one point the singer says the flute turns “languorous and carefree” and Zupancic certainly did so in Debussy’s ‘Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune’ where conductor Jérémie Rhorer drew some sensuously beautiful and refined playing from the CBSO. In perfect synchronicity it was played on the first balmy day of Spring as Birmingham was bathed in sunshine. With Zupancic’s solo swooning over the strings’ shimmering heat haze, for fifteen minutes Symphony Hall was transformed into a sun-baked afternoon in mythological Greece. That druggy lotus-eating atmosphere was also evident in ‘Nuages’, the first movement of Debussy’s ‘Nocturnes’ where the clouds lazed dreamily to the sultry cor anglais (Rachael Pankhurst). Rhorer flicked the orchestral switch for a snappily rhythmic ‘Fêtes’. Debussy wanted a “blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm”, and the CBSO obliged. It was an interesting choice to cast the CBSO Youth Chorus in ‘Sirènes’. But Debussy’s sirens are not the seductive sailor-enticers of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ but the melismatic representation of the sea’s rhythms and in that role the high, fresh soprano voices of the youngsters, directed by Julian Wilkins, were an excellent fit.

I wish Rhorer had maintained the mythological mood, by ending the concert with the austerely beautiful ‘Apollon musagète’ ballet music, Stravinsky at his most sublime. Instead he chose the ‘Symphony in Three Movements’ which the composer called a “war symphony”, a meretricious claim which falls flat after the initial stern piano-driven opening. Stravinsky’s supreme talent as an orchestrator covers the seams of the work’s patchwork origins – including a rejected Hollywood film score – and the CBSO’s wind, string and brass seized their opportunities to shine. The symphony resembles the office worker who is perpetually busy and bustling but whose activity actually achieves very little. While Stravinsky sunned himself in California, Prokofiev and Shostakovich wrote the real war symphonies – back in the USSR.

N.B. The biggest cheer of the night was for the opening plea by Graham Sibley (Director of Orchestra Operations) for patrons not to film the concert. Hurrah!

Norman Stinchcombe

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