I’ve long thought that, should there be a full-sized symphony orchestra to hand, I’d happily die to the closing section of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite – so long as it was done with the enfolding tenderness the score requires, and very, very slowly.
Simon Rattle’s reading of this music at the Proms was on the fast side for my taste but qualified in every other way: I’ve rarely heard what we must now refer to as his orchestra, the London Symphony, play so beautifully – you had to hold your breath for fear of damaging the spell. And if you love Ravel, you’d have been holding your breath throughout the whole of this exquisite Prom, which was entirely given over to the composer’s works inspired by fairy tales and played at dynamic levels that rarely rose above mezzo-forte.
The concert unfolded like a bedtime story told in a whisper; and in the vastness of the Albert Hall that meant you had to listen carefully. But why not? After Mother Goose came Sheherazade, Ravel’s exotic indulgence for orchestra and soprano (Magdalena Kožená in this case). And then L’enfant et les sortileges, his operatic miniature about an obnoxious child (Kožená again) transformed by magic, vulnerability and love into a repentant one calling out for his mother.
As operas go, it’s not the Ring; it’s simple, delicate, a trifle. But Ravel composed it after the death of his own mother, to whom he was inordinately close. He wrote this music from the heart. And the child’s final cry, “Maman”, is one of the most moving moments in all lyric repertoire. It stabs you, with a sharp but somehow healing pain that this performance delivered perfectly. A sure highlight of the season.
Daniel Barenboim’s Proms visit, with the young players from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide who are his West-East Divan Orchestra (WEDO), was another highlight. Barenboim has magisterial presence and he’s forged this band into a credible force – of interest for more than the extra-musical reasons that first swept it to prominence, and obvious here in luminous but clean accounts of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy.
But politics are never far from the agenda and they sometimes steer it into the artistic equivalent of blind alleys – one being a new work on this programme, Looking for Palestine, by David Robert Coleman. Setting words by the daughter of WEDO’s co-founder Edward Said, it was atmospheric but obtuse: a long 20 minutes of sustained tension that neither erupted into real drama nor filled its duration with engaging ideas. I understand why WEDO does this sort of piece, but wish it wouldn’t.
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